Bidoun began with a curiously capacious declaration of intent: We Are You. Or, at least, so claimed the cover of Issue Zero. Issue 1 sported another slightly mysterious boast: We Are Spatial. Issue 2, again: We Are Old. By Issue 3, apparently, We had said enough: the next theme was just plain Hair. But I think there was a secret subtitle, to that issue and to every other ever since: We Are All Over The Place.
In the best way.
Now it’s all here for the internet to see, a giffy melange of the indispensable and the marginal, glossolalia and juvenilia, perversely compelling words and images. Bidoun’s project was and is and will yet be fundamental to 21st Century art and culture — and not just from the Middle East. And Bidoun was and is and always will have been formative for me.
So ululations! Vive la Bidoun! Bidoun, forever…
4ever… which is almost how long it took to finish this collection of some of my greatest hits. Because the first thing I did was read back through this levelled-up, hyper-linked, browser-bursting bounty of material. And that first thing took weeks, as I tried out various ideas of how to present a miniature magazine — the magazine-in-miniature — in an interesting and compelling way.
Language was one idea; rejected, too vague.
A collection on lady terrorists, body organs, and insect goddess-queens was perhaps too niche.
A suite featuring the worst, most offensive, images and articles from the magazine’s history, to be titled We Are Ew — actually, I still want to do that one.
But the more time I spent with the new website, the more things got personal. During the unexpectedly emotional trawl through the work of old friends and once lovers and big heroes and perfect strangers — things I’d read and more I’d missed and things I’d forgotten I’d even written — I encountered the clumsy first publication of a very much different me.
That beginning was also an end, of my personal quest to appear in Bidoun’s pages. I’d stopped short at my first sight of Bidoun, at the Townhouse Gallery in Cairo, because the girl on the cover looked exactly like my best friend’s sister. “Hey! Wow! Beautiful!” I thought. “Oh. No. Never mind.” It wasn’t her, and the magazine was very expensive. A few issues later, though, Sheikh Zayed’s star turn as the cover model of the Emirates Now issue sealed the deal. I devoured the whole thing — and scrutinized the biographies of its contributors.
There were no Emiratis in the Emirates issue.
No one from the Gulf, period.
I set out to change that. It took a while. There was a long period of pitching. Eventually we settled more than a little uncomfortably on the one thing I’d been loath to write about: myself. And so a series of autobiographical essays were born. One day my editor, Michael Vazquez, said to me, “You know, these should be a book…” Time proved him right. Some of those stories made their way into The Girl Who Fell To Earth, a book.
An awkward genre, the memoir may be the lowest common denominator of contemporary nonfiction. Multicultural memoirs, in particular, can induce cringing, and worse. And yet there is something magical about Bidoun’s approach to the (highly) personal essay — and about the persons Bidoun has yanked essays out of.
So check out Gary Dauphin’s myriad alchemical musings in “The Fifth Element” on music, melancholy, and the nature of the glorie materialis: “the iridescent fingerprint of the Creator on his creation, a holy residue that, like an oiled wick, could connect the flammable hearts of men to the spark of the divine.” Read Yasmine El Rashidi’s “The Marble Lawn,” in which she recollects her childhood move to Saudi: “Some mornings, I melted cheese on the front lawn.” Encounter amazing characters like the goat-lady Ardo Balwo, the crazy neighbour in “Mad Love,” Nimco Mahamud-Hassan’s mind-blowing evocation of her Somali girlhood. Or Anand Balakrishnan’s boss in “The Serendipity of Sand,” whose improbable shape is surpassed only by his improbably profound (if super bonkers) theory that the zebra’s stripes and the giraffe’s neck are biotechnical testaments to an ancient African civilization. Meet Binyavanga Wainaina, his own greatest character, satirizing the celebrity he achieved with his famous Granta essay “How to Write About Africa” in a Bidoun-exclusive sequel, “How To Write About Africa II: The Revenge.” Or Tony Shafrazi, also his own greatest character, whose weirdly gripping autobiography is revealed in his definitive Bidoun interview. Explore “Slow Speed,” Kai Friese’s own private memories of (Indian) underdevelopment.
Bidoun, as you may know, means without. It has confounded many who wanted it to be more relevant, more committed, less sideways. But maybe it’s the absence of statements, manifestos, and borders that has made it such a special place for biographical expression.
Bidoun hollowed out a space for this diaphanous, diasporal we to hail each other from all over the planet with stories that are deeply earnest or super arch, sweetly epic or dazzlingly insignificant. Usually some combination thereof.
Bidoun has always insisted on something important and precious and incredibly rare — the right to be unrepresentative.
So vive Bidoun, in all its glories. In its pages, one might be anything, anyone, anywhere. And yet somehow, at the same time, we.
In 1382, glory descended upon the young men of England’s seminaries and theological schools, alongside such novelties as mystery, sex, female, and horror. Or rather, glorie descended, one of several new words improvised by Oxford don John Wycliffe and his band of translators for their controversial English-language version of the Latin Bible. The word’s first appearance is in Genesis, in the story of Joseph. The best-loved son of Jacob, son of Abraham, and owner of the famed coat of many colors, Joseph is sold to a passing caravan by his envious brothers, but despite years of exile, slavery, imprisonment, and even sexual harassment, his gift for interpreting Pharaoh’s dreams eventually lands him a plum posting in charge of Egypt’s royal granary. Later, when Joseph encounters his brethren, now starving — it is a time of famine, just as he predicted — he instructs them to take word home to their father:
Lo! youre iyen, and the iyen of my
brother Beniamyn seen, that my
mouth spekith to you;
telle ye to my fadir al my glorie, and
alle thingis whiche ye sien in Egipt;
haste ye, and brynge ye hym to me.
[Genesis 45: 12-13]
Jacob comes to Egypt to see Joseph’s unlikely success for himself, and brings the Israelites with him. (This move would not go entirely well for the Jews, but that’s another story.) In Genesis glorie attends to the crosser of borders, the exile. It belongs to the immigrant, with his neatly tended warehouse of wheat.
Wycliffe’s translation was undertaken in the chaotic aftermath of the Black Death, a time of epic realignment, from which new classes, new nations, and new literatures would spring. It was composed at exactly the same moment as The Canterbury Tales, and if the new translation was dedicated to anyone, it was less the Father, Son, or Holy Ghost than the farmers, tailors, and millers whose entitlement, piety, and licentiousness Geoffrey Chaucer immortalized in his own vernacular text. (Wycliffe’s critics thought as much, bemoaning how “the jewel of the clergy has become the toy of the laity.”) Where the Roman Tacitus had celebrated the war song of the rebel Boudicca — “On this spot we must either conquer, or die with glory!” — and the authors of the medieval Annals of Wales attributed the victories of sixth-century Celts to a luminous king called Arthur, the translators of the Wycliffe Bible discerned a different majesty, stolid yet popular, the glory of those who survived when twenty million died.
What Wycliffe’s group called glorie had appeared in the Latin Bible as gloria. But the Latin Bible was itself the work of translators, and their gloria sat perched atop still older words in other languages. Doxa, for one, scattered throughout the original Greek version of the Gospels. The word had signified simple “opinion” or “belief,” but the Jewish scholars in Alexandria who translated the Hebrew scriptures into Greek in the first centuries BCE chose to render ha-kavod, Joseph’s glory, as doxa. The coinage lent doxa an air of splendor, as well as a kabbalistic register of prayerful submission. (“May my soul be like dust to all,” asks the daily Jewish prayer, dust and soul alike submitting to wind.) Glory is thus connected at the root not only to notions like paradox (refusing to submit to common sense) or orthodoxy (reflexively submitting to same) but also to a heterodox undercurrent in which divinity and mundanity are understood as contiguous. This is a thing-like glory, at best distantly related to a Wycliffe coinage like mystery. It is actually a form of anti-mystery: startling and immediate, like the stench of a family rotting in a plague-ridden cottage, or a sudden flash of gold.
Some mainline Catholic theologians of the same era saw glory in somewhat related terms, speaking of a gloria materialis. This was as an objective, etheric conductor, a class of matter across which the affirmed and exalted fact of God could be transmitted to the baser levels with all the force of a slap in the face. Gloria materialis was like a fifth element connecting earth, fire, water, and air to God. It was the iridescent fingerprint of the Creator on his creation, a holy residue that, like an oiled wick, could connect the flammable hearts of men to the spark of the divine. A few centuries later the first chemists would theorize another fifth element, phlogiston, an invisible substance thought to bind the other four in combustible configurations; gloria materialis could be thought of as a theological phlogiston. This kind of glory evoked the properties of circuits and currents in the pre-electrical age. It could suddenly render one speechless, the proverbial bolt from the blue. One could plug into this circuit willingly, or one could find oneself turned abruptly into its passive conductor, filled against one’s will by the grandeur of God. Away from the Church of Rome Calvin imagined something similar and called it grace, a downward pressure from heaven that could force an unwilling man to bend the knee. It was through grace that even the lowliest might find themselves saved.
Wycliffe’s sense of a middling, almost humble glorie would lose its focus as later generations lost sight of the apocalypse that had engendered both them and it. Glory has come to accommodate a much wider world of meanings. Today we speak of glory in relation to winning seasons, paradigm-shifting technologies, roadside conversions, early adopters, sublime panoramic vistas (both natural and reproduced), and first brushes with abiding, transforming loves. And glory has become a channel for other, darker energies. Milton wrote in Paradise Lost of Lucifer’s doomed aspiration “to set himself in Glory above his Peers,” and we moderns feel the pang of deep, underlying sympathy. The louche terrorist Zero in Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1885 novel The Dynamiter quipped of his predilection for blowing things up, “Mine is an anonymous, infernal glory. By infamous means, I work towards my bright purpose.” And lo, across much of the English-speaking world, an opening in the partition between two bathroom stalls in a men’s room becomes a glory hole. Dictionaries variously define the glory hole as “a drawer or place where things are heaped together in a disorderly manner,” as an all-male space below decks on a ship, as “an opening in the wall of a glass furnace, exposing the brilliant white light of the interior.” Perhaps the term’s coiners were also thinking of the Latin diminutive gloriola — gloriole in English — which over the years has become a near synonym of halo. The same bright circlet now encloses the head of saint, sinner, and martyr without prejudice or distinction, an opening in the fabric of the world through which they transmit anonymously and alone to another plane. All of it is glory.
I came of age during the 1970s and Eighties in Cambria Heights, Queens, a quiet, quasi-suburban neighborhood of tree-lined streets on the extreme eastern edge of New York City. Our zip code growing up was 11411, a numerologically suggestive palindrome — four ones? One four? It could have easily been notation for a drum machine, the encryption of a rhyme. My family had come to the US in the mid-‘60s, fleeing the island of Haiti and the dictatorship of François “Papa Doc” Duvalier. Cambria Heights and its environs made tidy safe houses for their aspirations, as well as for those of tens of thousands of equally mobile African-American neighbors. My parents had no intention of staying — no Haitian tyrant had ever held on to power for more than a few years, and they presumed they would soon go back home. But they were grateful to America. Back in Haiti my mother had been pregnant twice, but those “back there” pregnancies had produced stillborn twins (fraternal; one boy, one girl) and a weak, premature daughter, doomed to an infant’s burial. I was told the story of my dead siblings as soon as I was able to hear it. The moral I came away with was that I was not the firstborn; I was simply the first to survive. Sometimes I wondered whether they resented me the good fortune of my birth in exile, if they wished Duvalier had made himself dictator sooner.
The then-defining traits of New York City in the popular imagination — subways, graffiti, blight, crime — were in the main hard to come by in our neighborhood. Public transit started running out of steam long before it got to us, the terminal stops of the subway system transferring bedroom commuters onto weak sister buses several miles to our west in Jamaica, and Queens’s sketchier nabes were highly specific and concentrated zones whose outlandishness only underscored their anomaly. Queensbridge Houses may have been the largest, most direly expansive public housing project in the United States, but it sat remote on the borough’s Manhattan-facing edge like a distant stand of foothills abutting a rarefied, skyscrapered promised land. Similarly, for most of my youth the suffering and violence in Queens’s worst precinct — the appropriately nicknamed Southside — was experienced largely through newspaper headlines, rhymes, and television news, though it was merely a long bicycle ride away from the major landmarks of my adolescence. From the mid-Eighties through the mid-Nineties, Southside was ground zero of Queens’s crack epidemic; Curtis Jackson, aka 50 Cent, twenty-first century hip-hop’s biggest-selling robber baron, grew up there. Long before the entire world knew the trivia of 50 Cent’s comic-book origin — shot five times while dealing drugs in Southside! In the face! — it was well established that a kid from Cambria Heights or Saint Albans would have to be crazy to ride his bike out there. It would get tooken, as the West Indians liked to say.
Our part of Queens was as far away from the urban centers of Manhattan, Brooklyn, and the Bronx as it was possible to live and still consider oneself a legit New Yorker. Most of its residents had fled the big, bad core, but they had not run so far that it was unable to exert a powerful hold on the imaginations of their sons. We idolized and feared what we shorthanded as “The City,” fretted that our distance had diminished us, made us soft. We tested ourselves against The City’s hazards at the border when we could, but mostly we carried traces of it into our homes surreptitiously, for study. The years of my growing up saw the birth of hip-hop in the United States, and New York is the genre’s Garden of Eden, but Queens has always played the role of stepchild in these histories. (Even bucolic Staten Island would eventually be redeemed by the esoteric exploits of the Wu Tang Clan.) My part of Queens played an honorable role in Eighties hip-hop — I can claim to have seen local heroes Run-DMC at more than one block party before they were famous — but there was always a sense that my local heroes were tainted or limited by the underlying good nature of their origins. Even in the Eighties you had the feeling that somewhere in The City, likely in Manhattan, Brooklyn, or the Bronx, there existed a more powerful musical live wire, whose voltages and amplitudes ran differently than ours. The great MCs of Eastern Queens and Western Long Island — Tribe Called Quest, Public Enemy — made epic claims on our attention, but they tended toward the formal or political, their imprecations and choruses not quite the soundtrack to an anxious walk down an unexpectedly darkened alley. Although they would have their moment, we always had a feeling that they’d been born to be eclipsed by hard-cases from the West, even if the West was 50’s Southside or Mobb Deep’s Queensbridge.
At eleven or twelve my friends and I were simply too young to get on a train and witness such things for ourselves. But we had been able to intuit their existence through the music and chatter that emanated from radio towers atop the Empire State Building, maybe the World Trade Center. During the day New York was a fairly standard American radio town, but on Fridays and Saturdays the airwaves would undergo startling transformations. On weekends I would stay up way, way past my bedtime, alone with a primitive radio cassette recorder, obsessively listening to, taping, and annotating live hip-hop shows broadcasting from clubs in The City. It was painstaking work. Masturbatory. I retreated to my room to commune with the music the same way I might retreat with pornography, locking the door and projecting myself into scenarios and situations that were beyond my years and ken. Long before I had any real notion of sex or dating or manly peacockery and expression, I understood that the clubs in The City were playing fields where all of the above and more took place. When the DJ would cut the noise of a crowd into the mix, I pictured myself in the hot, darkened room, lending my voice to the mass, feeding out along wires to the radio towers and into the world, into my bedroom, the circuit complete.
Friday to Saturday, week to week, the mixes changed very little; whole months or seasons might be marked by songs that would appear in different locations in the mix on a given night, in different versions. But when something new appeared in the mix, it was like accidentally stumbling across the third rail. It was magic, a sudden and irrevocable shift in the fabric of the cosmos. I remember being disquieted by the regularity with which what I had believed to be the Greatest Record Ever could be eclipsed by another. How could such things be? Didn’t that mean that the thing I had loved just a few moments earlier was somehow untrue, unworthy? And didn’t that mean that the thing I was loving now was also destined to disappear?
In addition to confounding me, a new, hottish song also immediately sent me into a kind of informational panic. The DJs didn’t tell you what they were playing — it was a club mix, after all — so if you couldn’t intuit who the artist was or make out the lyric to a refrain, you would have to ferret the data out somehow during daytime hours. On my particular block lived two older boys with hobbyist DJ tendencies: Eddie, who played the good-natured, tough-guy protector to the younger boys, and Pete, who was far and away the biggest asshole in a five-block radius. Pete was a blond, blue-eyed kid — his parents were refusenik hold-outs from the Fifties and Sixties, when Cambria Heights had been an Irish and Italian neighborhood — who had survived and prospered by living out a highly specific version of black maleness with an exactitude and rigor that bordered on the Japanese, though it was all thuggery and bullying. Pete had more sneakers and Kangol hats than anyone we knew and was by far a better and more knowledgeable DJ than Eddie, but consulting him was always a last resort. It brought risks — of ridicule, mostly, though also cartoonish physical assaults involving wedgies and Indian burns. Even his eventual redemption was lifted from a certain colored set of pages. Pete converted to a strain of Sunni Islam popular with African-Americans. He lives on the same block to this day, holy and sanctified, his mother and the kids from the old neighborhood the only people allowed to refer to him by his Christian name.
In any case, at a certain point on Friday and Saturday nights I invariably found myself without guides. There were two mixes each weekend night, an 11pm to 2am hip-hop mix and a 2am to 4am house mix, and I would listen to both, cataloguing and recording songs. But in the dead of night, when the house music started, I had nowhere to turn. In the aftermath of disco, most dance music had become associated in our young minds with homosexuals, and neither Eddie nor Pete had much truck with the gays. I would sit in the dark, unnerved and unmanned by the keenness of my interest. I feasted on the orchestral flourishes of the house music then in vogue, the gospel-powered wails of wronged and hopeful black women. It was a vicious cycle: I knew I would never be as tough as Eddie (forget Pete or the kids who lived in The City), so I felt a kind of ecstatic release from the pressure of manly expectation when 4/4 beats and outsized vocals issued out of my radio. But this in turn only further undermined my claim on the 11pm-to-2am slot. I worried that someday I would have to make a choice between mixes, and it seemed unfair, rigged even, a choice between two forms of failure.
Still, the house mix was too compelling to turn away from. I was fascinated by math as a kid, and I would often try to graph the mixes on quadrille paper, assigning admittedly arbitrary values and lines and algebraic expressions to beats, vocal lines, crescendos, and fades. This work was easier with the already schematic dance music, and I would often fantasize about working backwards from a graph and creating a song from it. The pictures always struck me as beautiful, futuristic, graffiti-like, and I wondered what the graph of the Greatest Record Ever might look like. I understood from my readings in physics (another interest) that scientists were on a quest to find a grand unified theory that could explain and encompass everything, and I imagined that such a thing must exist for music, too, a graph of the perfect, hidden beat. This notion seemed to solve the problem of the Greatest Song Ever, as whatever song I loved at any moment could be understood to be an aspect or piece of the Perfect Song, with some lines and equations omitted or mathematically transformed. The next Greatest Song Ever didn’t erase or eclipse the previous one; they were all the same. The upshot, of course, was that I might have to keep listening, cataloguing, and graphing forever. Saturdays and Sundays I would lay in bed well past noon, more haggard than any child of relative quiet and privilege should have been.
As my radio scanned the ether for signs of newness, I was not so much Joseph discerning the true shape of Pharaoh’s dream as Noah, building and collecting, hedging my bets against some gathering storm. (My parents were exiles after all; they had been chased across the sea.) I didn’t know what I was making, to be honest, but I knew that this unknown thing’s construction entailed an awful amount of work. I was going to need help, tools — better tools than pen and graph paper and cassette recorder. My parents had been loath to buy me an Atari. They worried it would come between me and my studies, they said. So I talked them into buying me an expensive personal computer by telling them that it would help with my studies.
I eventually settled on a black-and-silver machine made by Texas Instruments. It was a terrible choice, really, doomed from the start; the TI was introduced in the early '80s, only to be quickly eclipsed by Commodore 64s, IBMs, and Apples. Its one noteworthy feature was that it came with a then-impressive speech-synthesizing peripheral, a side-benefit of TI’s only successful line of consumer electronics: the Speak and Spell talking vocabulary tutor. On more than one occasion I stayed up until dawn, playing the speech-synthesizer against the radio, making the computer talk to me, recite lyrics in various electronic voices and accents. Listening for an echo. I didn’t know it at the time, but Texas Instruments had gotten its start in much the same way as a WWII-era maker of seismological devices, using reflected sound to pinpoint buried petroleum fields and the occasional silent-running German submarine. Giant pistons or explosive devices would beat against the curve of the earth as if it were an eardrum, seismic waves carrying back echoes of pharaonic riches. Like Joseph after all.
I was seven when my father left for Saudi Arabia. He came into my bedroom one night, the day after a trip to the Petrified Forest and two days before my birthday, to kiss me goodbye and ask me what I wanted from there. I said I wanted red rain boots. Not that I imagined he would find any such boots, red or otherwise, in Saudi Arabia (where it rains less than 16mm a year) but because he told me that night he was going to Germany. He frequently went to Germany on business, and on his previous trip my brother and I had asked for a dog. He came back with two, Festus Von Haus Neufken and Funny Von Haus Neufken. Brother and sister, like us. They were big, black dogs, pedigree German shepherds, which the immigration officers at Cairo International Airport mistook for lions (“These foreigners, their animals look different,” they insisted, trying to deny them entry.) My mother suggested that this time we should ask for smaller gifts. I don’t recall what my brother wanted, but rubber boots seemed reasonable to me.
It’s hard to imagine that my father wanted to go to Saudi Arabia. He was one of those large-spirited men who loved food, women, and parties. He loved alcohol, too, in that joie de vivre, larger-than-life type of way. He would wake up early every other Friday and spend the whole day barefooted and in Bermuda shorts in our oversize Cairo kitchen, marinating meats and fish, preparing vegetables and salads, and trying out cocktail recipes in preparation for his bimonthly Saturday barbecue dinner parties for fifty people plus. It should be said that his greatness as a cook was largely contingent on having a subservient other to do the peeling, chopping, and (many hours later) washing up; invariably, my brother or me.
My father had said he’d be gone for two weeks. Two weeks passed. Then four. Finally, my mother broke the news. Our father had gone to Jeddah, not Hamburg. She didn’t say how long she had known, or when he would be coming back. I’m not sure if she knew herself when he was returning. I don’t remember much of how I felt, except confused. There was a photo from a few years earlier of my father in Germany in a tan wool coat, standing in the snow, smiling, and in my mind he had been there all along, that happy person in the cold. It was hard to imagine him in the sand.
I do recall asking if I would still get the boots.
I knew almost nothing about the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia save that it was a desert. But every time I overheard my mother on the phone, sharing the news with friends and relatives, I would hear something else, some unease, in the spaces of silence that punctuated the side of the conversation I was privy to. I would often be close enough to hear the quick shift in intonation and pitch as the person on the other end of the line responded, “Saudiyya? Mamdouh?”
“What will he do there? How on earth will the poor man survive?”
My father was hardly the first Egyptian to decamp to the Kingdom. The first exodus left in the wake of the 1952 revolution, when the Free Officers — led by Mohamed Naguib and Gamal Abdel Nasser — staged a military coup, ousting King Farouk and ending the British occupation. In 1954, a spectacularly failed assassination attempt by a Muslim Brother led to a political crackdown, and many Islamists took refuge in Saudi. (Over time they sent money back to Egypt, tempting others to join them.) Nasser became president in 1956, and his pan-Arab and socialist dream, while inspiring to millions at home and abroad, was not only unpopular with Islamists. My grandfather, a steel trader, once told me that Nasser “ruined the economy and business and wrecked our lives.” Certainly there was a steady drain of brainpower out of Egypt in the years that followed — most of it westward, but some of it east, across the Red Sea, into the Kingdom. Later, at the height of the Seventies oil boom, the development of Saudi Arabia’s infrastructure created an unyielding wave of opportunities, and Egyptians were flown in by the planeload.
But my father had done well for himself in Cairo. He worked for a foreign oil company before starting his own business importing spare parts for one particular part of one kind of machinery used to extract oil — and then started another, manufacturing prefab cabins for offshore oil rigs. Occasionally, in the context of his work, he would mention the oil in the Gulf, but for the most part El Khaleeg barely existed. At school, in fact, that vast expanse of desert that extends across one million square miles and includes Dubai, Abu Dhabi, and Qatar was all just Saudi Arabia — and then, at some point, Kuwait, too. In our minds and imaginations, the Gulf was just those two states, and they were where you went only if you had neither the resources nor the degree to get a decent job. It was for the desperate. Not for us.
Although Saudi was also where our relatives would go for hajj, my only real notion of the place, all of it, were the beautiful Chinese-made embroidered pajamas that my great-aunt would bring back when she went to visit her son and his wife in the Gulf. I loved those pajamas. You couldn’t get Chinese-made things in Cairo back then. I am pretty sure that when my mother mentioned Saudi Arabia, I immediately thought of pajamas.
It wasn’t until years later that I learned that my father had been desperate. His businesses had unraveled, leaving him in debt, and he had found himself in some kind of trouble. But he had connections. By way of an old rich-royal Saudi schoolmate, one of many rich-royal or well-to-do Arabs who had attended his particular private boys’ boarding school, Victoria College, my father had gotten a job in Jeddah overseeing one subsidiary in a large family-owned Saudi conglomerate.
Memory somewhat fails me about those first months of my father’s absence, but I do recall that the atmosphere was tense back then — the conversations I overheard, the heaviness in the house, and the reactions of my friends and their parents when I mentioned Saudi and that my father had moved. Some days I would come home from school to find my mother crying to herself, alone, or with my great-aunt. But there were also phone calls from my father. At some point, after a morbid start, they became exuberant calls, filled with laughter and stories and promises of what he would do and buy for us when we met again. There was talk of houses — the big marble one with a pool and a floor for each of us; the one near the palace of the King; the one with seven bedrooms. There was talk of the Red Sea coast and friends’ beach houses and snorkeling and a boat. He promised dogs — you could get any kind of dog in Saudi Arabia, they imported them from all over the world. There was an American school that had huge grounds and tennis courts and things that our small school in Cairo didn’t have.
And there were shopping malls. There was this big, American-style shopping mall, he told my mother. He said it was the first shopping mall in the Arab world. You could buy anything in Saudi Arabia, he said. Things we didn’t even know about in Cairo.
He was selling us on the idea of the place, and he was a pretty good salesman. For my brother it was the imported chocolates. (My brother loved Cadbury Eggs.) My mother loved the thought of the malls. I was tempted by the house with a pool, but perhaps not completely sold.
It was hot, though, my father warned. Forbiddingly so. So hot you could even fry an egg on the ground outside. I wanted to know if we could make melted-cheese sandwiches outside instead. My father promised that we could.
We finally visited him in his big marble house with five bedrooms and a marble lawn sometime late that first year after he left. We decided on cocker spaniels and a Ping-Pong table, and every day we would be dropped off at the mall. It had been agreed that my mother would prepare for the move, and my father would give my mother a few hundred Saudi riyals to shop for our new and future life there. There were dozens of shops in that mall, plus a food court and a supermarket. We would try to time our daily shopping trips so that we would complete the first round of eighteen shops and end up at the supermarket door exactly at noon, when it was time for midday prayer. All the other shops kicked you out during prayer time, but the supermarket was willing to just lock you in for those twenty minutes and you could browse. We did, every single day for the three weeks we were there. In the evenings, my father would take us to the gold and perfume souks (which happened to also sell clothes and where I once found a purple ski suit with pink snow boots for an upcoming school ski trip to Switzerland), and on the weekends we would drive around the city looking at the public art that filled the city’s roundabouts. There were works by Alexander Calder, Joan Miró, and the French sculptor César; a giant geometry set, a huge block of marble with several cars protruding from it, a mammoth bicycle, and a mounted defunct propeller plane; hanging lanterns, world maps, coffeepots, incense burners, palm trees. But often, we would stay at home in our marble house watching old sitcoms on Saudi Arabian TV. Channel 2 had foreign programs we couldn’t get in Cairo — Alf, Out of This World, The Cosby Show.
Some mornings, I melted cheese on the front lawn.
We were back and forth to Saudi several times over the following year, and my brother and I grew to love our visits to Jeddah. We did little in the way of meeting people or making friends in that big house, but our time there was filled with goodies, and we were happy to be with our beloved dad. I also marveled at the fact that I could go out in my bathing suit. “You just slip this black thing over it, and you can go anywhere,” I would tell people back home, of the compulsory abaya. Our friends back in Cairo learned to love our visits to Jeddah, too — we always came back with presents, like crystallized sugar in pocket-size packets, or fake Reebok pumps. Once I came back with a plastic gadget for your hair that could turn a ponytail into a twist. It bought me popularity. My father did everything he could to make Saudi life enticing, and my brother and I were psyched for the move.
One day, during an Easter visit to Saudi, the four of us went to the mall together. As we made our way past a store that sold Indian fabrics and Chinese vases and cloisonné wares, my father was pulled aside.
“Your iqama,” the man demanded, referring to the tiny passport-like residency booklet that visitors to the Kingdom were issued.
The man had an unruly beard and wore a traditional robe that sat uncomfortably on his belly and fell short of a desirable length. He held a dirty bamboo stick.
“He’s the moral police!” my brother whispered, as we lurked, trying to catch bits of the conversation.
My father took out his dark olive-green iqama, and the man’s face softened. (Muslims were given green iqamas, Christians red.) They exchanged words for a few minutes and when my father came back, he whispered half-jokingly to my mother and me that maybe our hair should be covered.
Not long afterward my mother seemed to have decided that we would not be moving to Jeddah after all. In the middle of one of our weekly phone calls, she told him, and us.
“I’m sorry, Mamdouh, but it’s just not a life.”
They argued, but she insisted.
They fought, but she was adamant.
This went on for weeks. Then at some point, the conversation just seemed to end.
It was decided that we would only spend holidays in the Kingdom. Two months in summer, two weeks each at Christmas and Easter.
It took a while for it to sink in that my mother would never be persuaded, but eventually, my father moved from the marble house to a compound, and slowly built a new life for himself. Behind the walls of the gated community, he and his neighbors — some eight hundred other expatriate contractors — lived like bachelors. There was a makeshift disco and a bar with real whiskey (the chief of police of Mecca was a regular); there was a clubhouse and a pool; there were tennis courts and parties and women who walked around in shorts and bathing suits and summer dresses. My father took up cooking again, and competed in “cook-offs” with other chefs — mostly women. He won prize after prize. His house was smaller, wooden, one floor with three bedrooms, a little bit like the prefab cabins he once used to make for oil-field workers. He seemed happier. There are faded Kodak pictures of costume parties and belly dancers, poolside lunches and sunbathing. In all of the pictures he is tanned, smiling, surrounded by frolicking people, and always in his Bermuda shorts.
The photos from the Nineties include uniformed US Soldiers. My father had moved to the Eastern Province just as the first Gulf War began, in 1991, and his social circle expanded again. Besides soldiers, the Eastern Province was also where the American employees of Saudi Aramco, the national oil company, lived. The American compound was a sprawling village by the sea, with its own town center, a theater complex, a supermarket, and shops. On my few visits there, I saw many bikinis. For my father, the move had been a multifaceted step up. His company would service the Americans — and the hotels that were changing the skyline to host them — and it would also cater to Bahrain, just forty-five minutes away over “the causeway,” where Saudis would flock on Thursday nights. In Bahrain, there were nightclubs and alcohol, and men and women could go out freely in public. In Saudi Arabia even Starbucks was segregated into sections to separate women and families from men.
My father had a corner villa on the east coast, a real brick villa with a real garden and real grass. Water was more expensive than oil in Saudi Arabia, and his grass was expensive to maintain. But he insisted, and he convinced the company to pay.
He must have found his way over the causeway, too, but most of the photo albums he has from that time are of his compound life. The last picture in a series from 1991 features female soldiers in running shorts and gray T-shirts with the words US ARMY splayed across surprisingly full bosoms. A group has formed a semicircle around them, clapping. One of the soldiers has a scarf around her waist and her head is back, frozen in laughter. I recognize our family pictures in the background. I also recognize General Norman Schwarzkopf in full uniform.
My father called more often those days. He was full of stories. It seemed like he had met everyone you ever saw on CNN. A picture of him with Christianne Amanpour excited me the most. I wanted to go visit him right away.
But I don’t think I ever met any foreign correspondents in Saudi Arabia. Nor any soldiers, although my father had saved us some of the packaged food that had been dropped out of planes and into the desert for the ones who were deployed in combat. I do recall meeting the four women, expat oil wives who had dressed up in combat gear and driven their husbands’ Jeeps through the streets of Dhahran. (Outside of the compound, of course, women were not allowed to drive.) I can’t remember what my father thought of them, but my mother thought they were crazy. My father had taken us to Chop Chop Square a few years earlier, the place in downtown Jeddah where public executions are held, and in my mother’s mind it was foolish to antagonize the authorities — chop chop might have been the end result. (The women hadn’t been caught, in any case, though as western expats they would have probably have been deported.) All I really remember of those last few visits in the years after the Gulf War is barbecues, tennis, a badly sprained ankle, shrimp with garlic and white wine, and aura-cleansing sessions that my father’s best friend, Robbie, hosted at our house and hers. The spiritual component was new to my father’s Saudi life.
He began to call home less.
My father came home to Egypt on a summer night in 1996, twelve years after he left. He had called from the airport and asked my mother to open the main gate to the garden. For a summer night in Cairo I remember it being particularly cool, though perhaps it was just excitement that he was coming home again. He had only been back once in all those years — a two-week trip in 1995. This time, he said, he would stay for two months. He had promised we would play tennis every day, and that he would cook; we would have a barbecue and invite all our friends.
It was around midnight when he finally arrived. I had been waiting for him at the window for two hours when the black-and-white taxi finally pulled up. Behind it, a truck, loaded like a city skyline with large boxes and crates. He said that he had brought us things that he thought might fit nicely into our Cairo home. I could see my mother tense up at the sight of that truck, and I thought it must be a question of space. My mother didn’t like clutter.
My parents argued for days.
Once again I didn’t realize what was happening until it was over. My mother had known from that first night — my father was never going back. His surprise return took its toll. He opened bedroom doors without knocking, monopolized the sofa and TV. His hearing had deteriorated and no one else was interested in the football matches that began to blast through the house. He stayed home much of the time, and did little in the way of making conversation. He seemed like a shadow of his former self, and the house felt heavy with him.
Cairo was a different city than the one my father had left in the Eighties. His uniform Bermuda shorts and flip-flops seemed inappropriate. I had worn shorts myself when I first started college, catching the 48 bus from outside my house and jumping out on a corner by the Main Campus a few minutes from Tahrir Square. Occasionally someone would stare or harass me, but for the most part, no one batted a lid. That was 1993. By the time I graduated in 1997, I wore jeans or long, loose skirts. There was a rising trend of Islamism, and several deadly attacks on tourists that had shaken us all. One bomb went off at the Egyptian Museum, minutes from my university, the American one, which had also received threats. I acquired a collection of long shirts and cotton cardigans that I wore over everything now.
There were no such cosmetic options available for my father. The kind of life he had enjoyed in Cairo before he left — let alone the kind of communal lifestyle he had found in Saudi — was nowhere to be found. People weren’t so willing to party all the time. Business, too, was bad. Over time I watched him develop a facial twitch that I imagined grew from sadness, and he fell into what must have been depression. Eventually, my parents got divorced. After he moved out of the house, I would go and meet him at the local sporting club. We would sit around the swimming pool and he would tell stories of his Saudi days to friends and business associates and listless retirees.
“Unbelievable,” the mostly old men would say.
“One never would have thought.”
“Maybe we should all move there and get lives!” they would say, throwing back their heads in husky laughs.
I went back to the Gulf more recently, as a correspondent for the Wall Street Journal. My map of the Arabian Peninsula had filled out: as oil prices soared and business boomed, Dubai, Qatar, and Abu Dhabi came into their own. For a new generation of Arabs, the excesses and calculated modernity of the Emirates had developed an appeal, and prestige, of their own. El Khaleeg was no longer a last resort. Dubai was being marketed as the Manhattan of the Middle East, and when I was posted there, I was delighted. From my sleek and modern apartment in a gleaming skyscraper overlooking the coast, I traveled all over the region. Including back to Saudi.
Jeddah was nothing like I remembered it. I was forced to cover my hair, and in the downtime between interviews and meetings I was cooped up in dank hotel rooms that were said to be five-star. (One time I found a giant-size scarab beetle in my bed and sat up all night at the desk, petrified that there might be more.) At an economic conference, a wooden wall divided the conference hall, segregating the women from the men, though we all sat before the same panels of mixed-sex speakers. In the streets I noticed garbage and poverty — young children begging, scores of East Asian and Afghan and maybe even Egyptian laborers, standing on street corners in the sweltering heat, waiting for the bus. There seemed to be less marble.
But I received my greatest shock at the mall where we had spent enough hours to fill months of our lives. It was like entering a time warp. Everything seemed exactly the same, like it was still 1986. Except for the paint on the walls, which was peeling, and the marble floors, which were veiny and gray. And the shopkeepers, who seemed dejected. In one shop window was a cloisonné vase that I was certain had been there all those years back. I used to walk past it every day.
Now, I couldn’t wait to get out.
My father now lives in a two-bedroom penthouse with a sweeping terrace in central Cairo. He has a large marble dining table and the many pictures of us in Saudi Arabia are framed and scattered around various ledges throughout the house. The Weber Smoker and Grill that he had shipped home from Saudi and that had stood untouched in my mother’s basement for years is back in action. On a recent evening, he smoked salmon steaks and grilled vegetables for a gathering of thirty-six.
Like the rest of us, my father has rediscovered a passion for politics this past year. Every time I see him, it’s the only thing we discuss — the state of the nation, our interim government, the military, and who our next president might be. More and more, Egyptians are concerned about what will become of the country. When the revolution first happened, we had visions of utopia. Men and women were sleeping side by side in Tahrir Square. People seemed to wear what they wanted, they were generous, food was shared, everyone was courteous — no harassment, no discrimination, no didactic sermons on marriage or religion or the veil. But one year later, we have a parliament that looks like it might be a Saudi one, and the general sentiment is that the country is going to hell. (Or Iran or Saudi, for that matter.) An Islamist Speaker of Parliament has been voted in, with an ultra-orthodox Salafi MP heading the education committee. People say his funding comes from the Kingdom — from religious radicals seeking to subvert the revolution and turn Egypt into a colony. There is talk of compulsory headscarves and alcohol bans and the specter of morality police. At every gathering I go to, the tone is alarmist. I did not think it possible for people to smoke more cigarettes than they already did, but they do.
People talk about emigrating. But to where?
My father, on the other hand, is cheerful. He still brims with nostalgia for his Saudi experience, and he enjoys his role as contrarian. At dinner the other evening, he was in his element: on his terrace and in his Bermuda shorts with a Campari in his hand, making wildcat interjections as the conversation turned dour.
Never. It will never happen. Come on. I don’t believe it. Don’t you remember? We had a great life in Saudi. I’ll never change my lifestyle, no matter who says what. Ha! Nev-ar!
My cousin and his wife, who had once lived in Saudi on the same compound as my father in the Eastern Province, were at the dinner. They had moved back more recently, in 2009.
“Do you remember when I first arrived in Saudi, Mamdouh?” My cousin could barely contain her smile. “On Fridays at the supermarkets there would be lines of blond-headed people, their shopping carts stuffed with crates of grape juice and large boxes of sugar. I couldn’t understand — weren’t foreigners meant to be healthy? Was there a sugar shortage expected?”
“Ah, Saudiyya,” my cousin’s husband said, shaking his head. “Those were such days.”
“I can have my assembly line going again in a second, when the time comes,” my cousin said, slyly.
“We’ll make a killing,” her husband laughed.
Their teenage daughter did not get the joke. “What are you guys even talking about, ya Mamy?”
“Wine, ya Jouji, wine.”
“Come on,” Jouji said. “I don’t even believe you. It’s against the law there!”
“Wine, ya Jouji, wine. It’s true, ya Jouji, it’s true.”
“And I can charge admission to the parties,” my father said.
“Like at the compound on cook-off night!”
“I used to make this one shrimp dish with white wine…”
“You had women knocking on your door. For recipes!”
My young cousin was unconvinced. The rest of the guests laughed uneasily, their own drinks in hand.
The three Saudi returnees sighed as one. “Ah, Saudiyya.”
We lived on Fucking Street, the only street in Hargaisa that had a name (or the only memorable one, anyway). Our neighborhood was more orderly than most places in Somalia. The houses were in rows. But, as if to redeem this concession to logic, the numbers weren’t in sequence. Our house was number 117; next door was 82; and the house after that didn’t have a door at all. A crazy old woman called Ardo Balwo lived there, along with her goats, cats, and son, known in the neighborhood as Mohamed Cawar — Mohamed the Cross-eyed. She acquired him as a deposit for unpaid rent for the house across the street, which she let out to the local prostitutes. Mohamed’s birth mother was a prostitute, famous for her big tongue. She had no known name other than Big Tongue.
Mohamed was very loyal to his adoptive mother. She called him Mohamed Gini, after the twenty-shilling guinea note, because he was so precious to her. When someone called him Cawar, she’d respond by sizing up the offender and describing the most private part of their female or male anatomy as “crossed.” (Such abuse was considered inoffensive, quite normal, in Somalia.) In his twenties, Mohamed was still there, sitting slightly apart from Ardo Balwo with a flicker of embarrassment on his face. I don’t know what became of them. When remembering Ardo, Mohamed, and other neighbors of ours, my sister always prefaces her remark with “May they rest in peace,” as it is safer to assume that they have passed away. And if someone died before the war, we add, “So-and-so died, but before dying became commonplace.”
Though Ardo Balwo lacked a door, she did have a doorway. Every night she spent at least an hour carefully placing upright pieces of wood across the entrance — but would readily dismantle her makeshift door to answer any insult to her or her son with her studied reciprocal putdowns.
In the daytime, the doorway stood empty. Each morning she went to the rubbish dump to find things for her house, such as broken glass and burned cans and bits of cloth to tie around herself. She would return around eleven to milk the goats. The animals used to chew khat and we would see them high up on the house or the sole mirimiri tree in the street, enjoying the stimulation and the breeze. She used to pay me one shilling and a half to hold the ears and horns of the goats while she milked them. She then fed the milk to her cats, saving a bit for Mohamed. I looked forward to the payment, though I was ridiculed for it. I spent the money on Coca Cola, the only commodity that was widely available in Somalia, along with God.
Ardo Balwo was rare among Somalis for keeping pets. The only other Somali with a pet cat, to my knowledge, was General Mohamed Hersi, known as the Butcher of Hargaisa because he leveled the city (and worse) before he left. My sister flew out of Hargaisa on the same small Fokker plane as the general, who kept a large panther on a long leash in the hold, allowing it occasionally to snarl into the faces of passengers and the wounded soldiers lying on the floor. It smelled blood, and its agitation made everyone nervous. Hersi enjoyed it. He and his panther occupied the only two seats that hadn’t been ripped out to make space for the medevacs.
Hersi was less than sane, too, in his own special way. We preferred our local crazies. Ardo Balwo may not have had as impressive a cat as the man who destroyed our city shortly after she died, but she made up for that with the sheer quantity of felines that roamed the compound and greeted her as she turned the corner from the marketplace, laden with the lungs and intestines she had bought. Every Somali clan refuses to eat a particular piece of the anatomy of a slaughtered animal, and she would diligently collect these totemic rejects and feed them to her herd. She sat in front of her house, first holding the bits in her mouth, then cutting them into small pieces before carefully feeding her pets.
Many Somalis have nicknames. Ardo Balwo only ever used her own invented nicknames for others. She called my father Garaad, which means “wisdom.” I think he earned this nickname because he was respected, perhaps even feared, by the children in the neighborhood; when my father was around, they didn’t dare mock Ardo Balwo. His name was a reward for those brief respites of politeness. My mother she called Haweye Damakaweyne, which meant “a woman above any other.” My brother Hassan was Miciyo Libaax (Fangs of a Lion), while I was known as Kinsi Garaad, which has no meaning known to the sane. My sister Hodo was Harruuri. Ardo Balwo loved to call out to us with her slightly husky, almost goat-like voice. Harruuri itself had no meaning but was often joined to Hoor Ka Cad, which meant “the one whiter than the foam that forms when milking a sheep or a goat.” (Hodo had pale skin.) “Harruuri!” Ardo Balwo would shout. “Come and have some of this stomach lining; it is very tasty, tasty, tasty, tasty, tasty!” Ardo Balwo was always generous with her food, but it wasn’t appealing to eat the food of a cook who bathed once every two years.
Of all the mad people in our neighborhood — there were more than I can remember — Ardo Balwo stood out as the only one who was a proud homeowner, had a child, and kept domestic (if not quite domesticated) animals. When she was younger, she was quite well off, running an import-export business between Somalia and neighboring countries, of which there were many. The young Ardo Balwo fell for a truck driver famous for his amazing good looks and glowing skin. (She was beautiful herself then.) She referred to him simply as “the glowing one.” Like many truck drivers, he spent his nights in many different places and had lots of admirers across Somalia and probably elsewhere, too. Despite this, Ardo Balwo was happy with him until he cheated her out of her money and abandoned her. She never got over it, and her neighbors found this a logical explanation for her madness. It was commonly understood that unrequited romantic love could make people go insane.
We used to use the mad people as landmarks. For example, Heeryo Busto was the man who used to stand by a particular cafe, always at the same particular time. Then there was the one who used to go the cinema. His name was Rooraaye (The Runner). He’d get there before the film started, usually the only one to arrive on time. The owner would wait until there was enough of a crowd to justify starting the generator. Half of the cinema was covered, half was open to the stars. (On rainy nights, unsheltered seats were cheap.) We watched Indian movies that had no subtitles. Sometimes the reels were even in the right order. Most of the time, while the film was on, the audience would discuss it, only occasionally agreeing. Huge arguments would break out over the subject of the film or the direction of the storyline, and afterward different versions of the plot would be retold. But the best moment for me was right at the beginning, when the national anthem was played. Old men with sticks waved them angrily at the screen and everyone sang the rude version, which translated as, “It’s a big penis with pubic hair, and it fits the queen and whoever else needs it.” Those words suited the music better than the official lyrics, which I cannot remember. The anthem was also played at the end, but no one stayed around that long. Crazy Rooraaye was the first to leave, jumping up and pushing his way through the crowd. That was how he earned his name.
Bisadaaye (Catty) made funny noises but wasn’t violent and didn’t run after children, so he was of little interest to us.
Cumariid used to pray, when he wasn’t swearing at us. We used to call him Cumariid Ina Jibaax — Cumariid, Son of the Wanderer — as he was praying, and he would stand up and instruct his prayer to remain suspended while he turned and abused us in very imaginative ways that usually involved adults engaging in terrible sexual acts. The curses would follow us as long as we were within sight; then he would resume his praying. Cumariid used to stand in the Djibouti Bus Terminal, a grand name for a piece of sand like a soccer pitch.
For us, the best crazy man was Ibrahim, whose insanity took the form of obeying whatever instructions we children would give him. If we told him to run or sing or dance or take his clothes off, he would dutifully do as we asked. He had a crooked grin and a slow wiggly dance that didn’t require him to move his feet. We were told that he had fallen in love with a woman who had bewitched him, and the legacy was plain to see. It was inconceivable that someone could be bewitched in Somalia, so his curse was attributed to foreign parts, most likely Kenya or Ethiopia. Other than taking our orders, Ibrahim never talked. We thought it was the funniest thing. He might have been the only Somali who ever followed instructions.
If my former boss were reduced to a collection of ideal geometric forms, he would be a circle and a line segment. If described by a child, in deepest winter: two-thirds of a snowman on a stick. If a still life: a moldy brioche, an overripe squash, and two wispy stalks of grain. In the real world, where I knew him, he was a physics puzzle. My boss had a roughly spherical head covered with a white mane of hair and a large, sagging, oblong torso with long, thin legs that looked too weak and too insubstantial for their burden. His was a marvelous structure, impressive in size, ingenious in form, asymmetrical in proportion, seemingly ignorant of gravity, and the source of a perplexing mystery: How did he remain upright? What forces conspired to keep this human edifice — so absurdly defiant to natural laws — from toppling over or crashing to the ground?
My working hypothesis was that my boss simply never stood up. My clearest memory of him is in his office, seated, his bulk framed by the city behind him. Our office was on the eighth floor, and the panoramic window behind him looked west, over the traffic that threaded between the Mugamma and the Egyptian Museum. In the distance you could see the Nile and the latticework Cairo tower, and then, swimming like a mirage in the heat, the endless boxy expanse of Bulaq al-Dakrur. Continue far enough and you would reach the Western Desert: hot wind, shifting sands, desert roads, and military installations, operational and abandoned.
My own office, by contrast, had a single window that faced north across a two-foot-wide alley into the window of another office, occupied by two men. One played solitaire while the other rhythmically hammered at a thick green ledger book with a very large stamp. Throughout the course of the workday, I would watch the two of them as they tossed a steady stream of refuse out the window and into the alley below: loose tea, wet coffee grounds, wax paper with smears and specks of taameya and tahina, cold ful, stale bread, the horoscope section of the newspaper, a leather briefcase with a broken clasp, a cracked SIM card. A veritable pyre of cigarette ash and butts. As the weeks passed and the refuse heap grew, I came to envy these men. The mound below their window was proof of their existence. In the early evening, after they turned off the lights, descended, and disappeared into the city, the pile of trash remained. When they returned the next morning, it grew again.
I had no trash pile to call my own. A janitor, Ayman, swept my office twice a day, and in any case I could not figure out how to open my office window. This was unfortunate for several reasons, not least because I had no other outlet for my existential ambitions. I was given no work assignments, had no discernible responsibilities; I was generally superfluous to the functioning of the office. I could disappear at any moment and no one would miss me.
And yet I persisted. I arrived punctually every morning to sit at my desk. And I would spend a full workday at my desk, developing a healthy paranoia that someone would discover my uselessness. In order to protect myself, I perfected an elaborate mimicry of work. I kept an Excel spreadsheet open at all times, filled with meaningless numbers. If someone came in, I would type furiously for a moment, squint, and then lean back in my chair with an air of puzzlement, stroking my chin for good measure. When alone, which was most of the time, I would gaze through the window at the men across the alley. I grew particularly enamored of the man who showed up in the morning, turned on his computer, and played solitaire the whole day long, with periodic breaks for tea, prayer, and littering. We were not so different, he and I. This man, playing solitaire with neither pleasure nor purpose, and I, watching him play solitaire with neither pleasure nor purpose. Some days I felt a deep empathy bubbling within me. He and I, utter strangers, were engaged in a common project: humanity.
But empathy was not enough, I decided. I needed a sense of purpose. Perhaps I could find mine by talking to my boss. He seemed sensible. He was from the American Midwest. He wore short-sleeved button-down shirts paired with large rectangular glasses. Admittedly, his beard did not inspire confidence. It was unwieldy and, more often than not, speckled with crumbs. But it was said that he had once been an engineer, the sort of person who made practical, mechanical things. In contrast with the other people I “worked” with — Omar, who spent his time buying real estate; Sara, who spent her time collecting emoticons; Hoda, who spent her time buying socks from a lady who visited our office every day to sell her socks; and Ayman, who may or may not have lived in the hallway closet — my boss was a model of stable productivity.
And so I knocked on his door. He was seated, as always, in his large swivel chair. I sank into the couch.
My boss asked me how I was liking work. I lied out of habit, enthusiastically: “Greatly!” He smiled, or at least I imagined he did — he was so heavily bearded it was hard to tell what his lips were doing.
“I do hope you’re not working too hard,” he said.
I assured him that I was not.
“I hope you have enough time to do some sightseeing.”
I assured him that I had.
“Have you been to the pyramids?”
I had lived in Egypt for six months. Of course I had gone to the pyramids.
“You should go to the pyramids,” he urged.
I blinked. Had he not heard me? Just in case, I assured him that I would go. His beard made it impossible to understand his intentions. It seemed safest to agree with whatever he said until I found a way to discuss my predicament.
“The pyramids are marvelous,” he said. He held up an arm to draw my attention to the window, as if the pyramids loomed behind him, which they did not.
I looked through the window at the pyramids that were not there and nodded.
“I don’t think you understand,” he said. “They are magnificent structures.”
I paused to reflect on the full magnificence of the pyramids. “So many stones” was all I could think of to say.
“So many stones,” he repeated. “That is correct.”
I agreed. It did seem correct.
“And do you know how they moved those many stones?” he asked.
I smiled good-naturedly. “Slaves?”
I had offended him.
“Volunteers! Thousands of volunteers, donating their labor during the dry season. It was an honor to work on the pyramids — to create monuments that would outlast them and their civilization.” He paused and looked at me expectantly.
“How did they manage to move all of those stones?” I asked.
“No one knows,” my boss said with great satisfaction. “No one knows how the pyramids were built.”
I was sincerely confused. I had thought we must have figured it out by now. “Really?” I said.
“Oh, there are theories,” he said. “Theories. But we do not really know.” He seemed genuinely pleased by our ignorance of how the pyramids were constructed. “All of our technology,” he said, “scientific advances, computer-aided design, robotics. And still — we do not know. Ancient civilizations had knowledge that we moderns are yet to discover.”
It dawned on me at this point that my boss was not going to be particularly helpful in solving my issues with work. “Do you know how lucky we are to even know that they exist?” asked my boss. “It is the serendipity of sand. The sand buried the pyramids and preserved them. Even today, there are so many more mysteries — not just other pyramids, but other remains of the ancient Egyptians, buried beneath the sands of the desert, waiting to be discovered.”
“Wow,” I said. I said it again: “Wow.”
“And if you go to Africa,” he said, “do you know what you will not see?”
I did not.
“Pyramids,” he answered. “In fact, you will see no large ancient structures in Africa like you see in Egypt. Many people think that is because the Africans were not advanced.” I think he smiled again. “Do you know why that is?” I now worried that my boss was going to say something racist.
I held my breath. “Climate.” He let it sink in. “Climate.”
I was still holding my breath. “It is warm in Africa. Warm and humid. Nothing built by man can survive that climate. If there were structures the size of the pyramids many thousand years old, they would have rotted over time. And we would never know.”
I exhaled. My boss wasn’t racist. Just crazy.
“Consider the zebra,” my boss commanded. “Such a strange-looking animal.”
I smiled despite myself. “It’s like a horse, but with stripes,” I said.
“Correct. And, now, consider the giraffe — such a tall, absurd neck. What do these animals have in common?” “They are funny-looking?” “Correct. And these are not the only ones: the zebra, the giraffe — the elephant with its preposterous nose. The leopard with its spots.”
I pondered this small menagerie, which consisted only of the most ridiculous animals.
“But do you know what else these animals have in common?” I did not.
“Africa! Africa is home to the strangest-looking animals in the word. Did you ever think why that is?”
Not as such. “Natural selection?” I guessed.
“Natural selection,” he agreed. “The gift of Africa’s ancient civilizations: the large-scale hunting of species to weed out undesirable strains, the selective cross-breeding of different genera, all in the service of creating the most extraordinary land mammals. It would have taken scores of generations of coordinated effort across all strata of society. Every ancient would have to know which animal to hunt and which animal to let live, and every man, woman, and child would have to have felt motivated to do so.”
I had thought natural selection meant something else. I also thought that we already knew how the zebra got its stripes. “Theories,” my boss said.
“Theories. We still don’t really know. Does Darwin explain why only the strange-looking animals survive? Does Darwin explain why the exotic-looking animals are only in Africa?”
I admitted that he probably didn’t.
“Every civilization wants to create something greater than itself. In Egypt, the pyramids. In India, the Taj Mahal. In ancient Greece, the Parthenon. In South America, pyramids — of a different kind! But in Africa it is the animals. A living monument that could thrive where a building would rot and crumble. A testament to the power of people, driven by the desire to leave something for the future.”
I am almost sure he smiled then. There was a momentary quiver in my boss’s head, a bobble almost, that seemed to betoken an impending vertical movement. The moment passed. My meeting with my boss was over. “Well, there’s work to be done,” he said, shooing me out. “Monuments of our own to build!” I returned to my office and took my place at my desk, no more purposeful than before, contemplating spreadsheets and solitaire and the refuse heap outside my window.
Novelists, NGO workers, rock musicians, conservationists, students, and travel writers track down my email, asking: Would you please comment on my homework assignment / pamphlet / short story / funding proposal / haiku / adopted child / photograph of genuine African mother-in-law? All of the people who do this are white. Nobody from China asks, nobody from Cuba, nobody black, blackish, brown, beige, coffee, cappuccino, mulatte. I wrote “How to Write about Africa” as a piss-job, a venting of steam; it was never supposed to see the light of day. Now people write to ask me for permission to write about Africa. They want me to tell them what I think, how they did. Be frank, they say, be candid. Tell it like it is.
I have considered investing in a rubber stamp. I have imagined myself standing at the virtual borders of Africa, a black minuteman with a rubber stamp, processing applications — where YES means “Pass go, pay one hundred dollars,” and NO means “Tie ’em up and deport ’em.” It’s almost a sexual thing. They come crawling out of the unlikeliest places, looking to be whipped. I am bad, Master Binya, beat me. Oh! Beat me harder. Oo! They seem quite disappointed when I don’t. Once in a while I do, and it feels both good and bad, like too much wasabi. Bono sent a book of poems. Someone wrote an essay, “How to Write about Afghanistan.” I shook hands with, not one, but two European presidents, who read my text and shook their heads: How bad, how very bad. I shared a cigarette in Frankfurt with the bodyguards of Yar Adua, the Nigerian president, who said they don’t like gyms back in Abuja because the wives of the big men come onto them and cause all kinds of trouble. They preferred hotel gyms in Europe. But German cigarettes were not as good as Nigerian cigarettes. German vegetables were not as good as Nigerian vegetables. German beer was, when you really looked, deep into the foam, not nearly as light and golden as Nigerian beer. When all is said and done, they said, stamping out their cigarettes and smelling of fine French cologne, Nigeria is the best place. Have you been to Abuja, they asked? No, I said. Abuja is ultramodern, they said, and we all looked out at the wet, gray, old, stained buildings in front of us.
One day a man I know called me in some agitation. He had just read “How to Write about Africa” and wanted to know why I would write about him as I’d done. I had said, “After celebrity activists and aid workers, conservationists are Africa’s most important people. Do not offend them.” I had offended him. I had not mentioned anyone by name, but he was personally affronted. Yes, he’s a conservationist, and, yes, he has hosted a celebrity or two — but he didn’t trade in game animals, and he paid his workers well. Sure, I said. It’s beyond the pale, he said. I have never really understood what that means, where that is, the pale, and why such a mild-seeming phrase promises interpersonal Armageddon.
“How to Write about Africa” grew out of an email. In a fit of anger, maybe even low blood sugar — it runs in the family — I spent a few hours one night at my graduate student flat in Norwich, England, writing to the editor of Granta. I was responding to its “Africa” issue, which was populated by every literary bogeyman that any African has ever known, a sort of “Greatest Hits of Hearts of Fuckedness.” It wasn’t the grimness that got to me, it was the stupidity. There was nothing new, no insight, but lots of “reportage” — Oh, gosh, wow, look, golly ooo — as if Africa and Africans were not part of the conversation, were not indeed living in England across the road from the Granta office. No, we were “over there,” where brave people in khaki could come and bear witness. Fuck that. So I wrote a long — truly long — rambling email to the editor.
To my surprise, Granta wrote back right away. The editor, Ian Jack, disavowed the “Africa” issue — that was before his time, he said. A year or so later, another Granta editor called. They were doing a new “Africa” issue, and they wanted my perspective. Sure, sure, I said. And then forgot. And then remembered, felt guilty, felt the weight of a continent on my back. I was blocked and more blocked. I drank a Tusker. Finally I wrote something about Bob Geldof. It was shit, said the editor — not his words, but he meant to say that, and he was right. So I went back to work. The deadline came. The deadline went. I was busy working on a short story, busy working on my novel. A cold Tusker. The new Kwani. The beach, in Lamu. The editor called with an idea — why don’t we publish your long crazy email? An extract, that is. Sure, I said, absentmindedly. He sent me a draft. Phew, I thought, absentmindedly. Cut, paste, cut, paste. A few flourishes here or there. Send.
It took an hour.
The issue came out, my article went online. It became the most-forwarded story in Granta history. I started hearing from friends, from strangers; started getting my own words forwarded to me with a cheerful heading, as something I might be interested in, as though I hadn’t written it. I went viral; I became spam. I started getting invitations — to conferences, meetings, think tanks. I started getting mail. Now I am “that guy,” the conscience of Africa: I will admonish you and give you absolution.
If I was smart, I would have waited a few years and made an iPhone app: a little satirical story about how to write about Africa every day, interactive and adaptable, for ninety-nine cents. Fuck Granta… thanks, Granta.
I was busy working on my novel. Then I was drinking chili-flavored vodka with the editor of this magazine, and before I knew it I had agreed to write a sequel to “How to Write about Africa.” Okay, I said, absentmindedly. So, here we are.
An enraged man sprayed the words “Kill Lies All” on Picasso’s painting Guernica at the Museum of Modern Art yesterday. He was seized immediately and the red-paint lettering was removed from the masterpiece, leaving no damage.
The vandal, who shouted that he was an artist, was identified as Tony Shafrazi… As the guard grabbed Mr. Shafrazi, the man reportedly dropped the can and demanded, “Call the curator, I’m an artist.” He was taken to the West 54th Street station house and was charged with criminal mischief…
Mr. Shafrazi, who was born in Iran, spelled his name for those in the gallery as he was led away…
Several artists who were involved in picketing and protests at museums remembered Mr. Shafrazi as a fringe member of now-defunct protest groups.
“He was a wild Persian,” said Alex Gross, former head of the Art Workers’ Coalition. Mr. Gross said he had never seen any of Mr. Shafrazi’s work. Nor did he know what it was. Another painter who knew Mr. Shafrazi, John Hendricks, said he thought the suspect was “a conceptual artist.”
—The New York Times, March 1, 1974
There’s a story about Tony Shafrazi. Actually, there are a lot of stories about Tony Shafrazi. He’s a wild Persian. He’s totally Armenian. He gave Keith Haring his first solo show. He gave Jean-Michel Basquiat his last solo show. He defaced the most beloved antiwar painting in the world. He worked for the Shah of Iran. His first day in New York, he met Andy Warhol. He was there, in Texas, when Robert Smithson died.
We sought Shafrazi out this spring to learn more about the Tony Shafrazi Gallery — not his current space, in Chelsea, and not the 1980s SoHo hotspot, but the first one, in Tehran, which opened just months before the fall of the shah. There was a story about the gallery that we wanted to hear, about its first, last, and only exhibit, ‘Gold Bricks,’ by Zadik Zadikian. We wanted to know more about the gold bricks and the Iranian Revolution, and how the conceptual artist who sprayed KILL LIES ALL on Guernica to protest the Vietnam War became the Iranian royal family’s go-to guy for contemporary art.
We got our answers in the end, nested inside another set of stories about the underground filmmaker Jack Smith, Tarzan, and the Thousand and One Nights — but only after several marathon interview sessions in his New York gallery. Very specific questions provoked fantastically meandering responses. We grew frustrated and thirsty. But his gallery staff was accommodating and would on occasion delight us with the excellent Armenian sour cherry drink Shafrazi loves. And we were, of course, very grateful to Shafrazi himself. We know Larry Gagosian would never have given us this much time.
Bidoun: We’re interested in the first incarnation of the Tony Shafrazi Gallery, in Tehran, and the Zadikian show.
Tony Shafrazi: Well, in 1973, I was in the desert with Robert Smithson. He was desperate to make an earthwork — he hadn’t made anything for many, many years. I had been getting ready to go to Amarillo, Texas, because this gentleman, a big shot — owned a television station and a radio station, all the land you could see—and his wife, who came from a cattle family, they had millions of heads of cattle—they had invited me to come. I had met them in Tehran the year before. An artist friend had told them to call me up, and I took them around, we went to Isfahan. And you have to realize that being an artist in the late Sixties, early Seventies — even the well-known artists had to teach to survive, they made very little money, and at that time so many colleges were on strike, anyway.
I had been teaching a bit, and it was not easy — I planned my summer around little gigs that would make me a little money, knowing that I could go to Texas for a well-to-do holiday for a month or something. It was great. And then Smithson asked to come with me. I felt a little awkward because the people I was going to see didn’t really know him, but he was such a good friend, and being older and more experienced at these things, he persuaded me. And he sort of took over the trip. We flew in a plane. There was a lake a few miles out on this property that he became interested in. He started circling the lake — it was a terrible flight, the wrong kind of plane, you had to tip the wing to see out of the window. The lake was maybe five or six hundred feet across and seven or eight hundred feet long, and there was a little dam four or five feet tall that had been built to gather water for irrigation, all this rainwater and the silt, which was very fine earth that had come from mountains miles away. So he loved this thing and kept going back to make drawings and circle it in the plane. I had a very bad dream one night that something was going to happen, but he went back up. And then the plane crashed, and he died. It was a gigantic shock for all of us.
I was very close with Robert and his wife, Nancy Holt, and I came back to New York with the body. Virginia Dwan of the Dwan Gallery arranged a gathering of artists at her house up on Central Park West. I was still unknown then. We had a little bit of food, and everyone asked, “Well, what are you going to do now?” and I said, “I have to get back and finish Robert’s piece.” There were only four or five stakes stuck in the lake, but I knew the piece because he had drawn it for me. We had stayed up until four or five in the morning talking about it that week we were there, before he died. So Nancy said of course she was going to come, and Richard Serra said he would go. So the three of us spent forty-five days together in the desert, all these cactuses and rattlesnakes, making this thing. Richard was very helpful because of the forceful nature that he has.
Bidoun: You finished Smithson’s last earthwork?
TS: Yeah, it’s called Amarillo Ramp. It was quite a chore. You had to break the rock on a hill and then drive it in this truck and dump it into a bulldozer. The work is a spiral that starts from the water and comes to the beach, a rising spiral, the rocks tumble down so it’s wider. On the second day the guy fucked up, he sort of banged it, and I got mad at him and I took over the truck and built the whole thing.
Bidoun: Did Zadikian figure into this?
TS: So basically we spent forty-five days building this thing. And Richard Serra had an assistant, a very strong young man who had been helping him do these black wall drawings, really large canvases, with oil sticks — he would rub them really hard and it would leave this residue. That guy was Zadikian, a young guy who had escaped from Armenia, which was then the Soviet Union. He had very good energy. We became friends.
I followed his career. He had been working in tar and then suddenly he was working with color. There was a house on Greene Street where he knocked out a window and then sprayed the whole interior yellow with this gigantic industrial sprayer. It was wild — nobody had done that. And then he was at PS1, which had just opened — it was still an old, dilapidated school. He applied gold leaf to the whole entrance, the wall, the ceiling, the floor, everything. You were surrounded by gold. It was the best thing there. Walking into the space had a really dramatic effect. When the light hit it, it radiated tremendous fractured light.
Bidoun: How did the show in Tehran come about?
TS: There was all this stuff going on in Iran at the time. The empress had this whole cultural program, which was based on the five fingers of the hand. There was the Shiraz Arts Festival, focused on dance and performance, which had been going on for years and was radical beyond belief — to this day I think the most ambitious theater Robert Wilson ever did was this weeklong performance in Persepolis where the audience sat in the mountains and watched it like a picnic. There was the Tehran Film Festival, where people like Carlo Ponti and Pier Paolo Pasolini would show their films and talk. There was a big new Carpet Museum of Iran, which assembled the finest carpets in the world — which actually meant buying a lot of them back from the Vatican and palaces in England and France and Germany.
￼So I had heard talk about a museum of modern art. I asked around and knocked on doors and it was true, and eventually I found a building that was being built and got to know Kamran Diba, the architect. This was the Museum of Contemporary Art, and they wanted to build a major collection. When I got back to New York, I started going around to all the galleries—I didn’t trust the Persians, still don’t, as you can imagine — and got people to write me what was really a letter of recommendation, “To whom it may concern,” you know, giving an account of how they knew me and that if something happened with this museum, I would be the best person to make the collections really worthwhile. And it worked. They had acquired some important pieces before I got there, but then after, the acquisitions became quite rapid, much more focused on the 1950s and onward, very good pieces, a first-class representation of what the global culture was at the time. The idea was that I’d be building a bridge, a great vehicle for European and American friends and artists to come to Iran and travel to various villages, which in turn would allow up-and-coming artists from Iran to come into contact with European artists.
Bidoun: Where did the idea to start a gallery come from?
TS: Things started slowing down — the museum was taking longer than I expected, and I was frustrated. And I saved and saved and borrowed money from my father, and I decided to open a gallery. I thought maybe with the museum nearby, someone, one of the well-to-do families who knew me, might buy something, or maybe a museum would buy something. And maybe eventually this would enable me to have a gallery in New York, which was my goal.
Bidoun: And Zadikian?
TS: We decided to go with Zadikian, and the idea was to do something with gold leaf and bricks. We found the most primitive place where they made bricks from mud packed together and baked in a kiln and then each brick was sanded and sanded until it was perfect, absolutely beautiful, glorifying it in the form that it was. So it was a thousand-odd bricks, and when the gold was applied it was incredible, an absolutely fucking piece of work.
Bidoun: Okay, so you open a gallery in Tehran in 1978 and the first show is a pile of gold bricks. And the country is on the brink.
Bidoun: We’re interested in the show as a kind of historical allegory relating to your own life and to that specific moment. It actually came to our attention through a work by another artist, Michael Stevenson.
TS: In England? I heard about something, but I never saw it.
Bidoun: He did a recreation of the opening in Iran. He actually rebuilt it from what he —
TS: What he heard about it.
Bidoun: Yeah, he just approximated what that first show looked like in half-ruin.
TS: Uh-huh, in a state of half-ruin. Well, it wasn’t like that, but okay.
Bidoun: All right, so what was it like? Didn’t the opening take place under martial law?
TS: Yes, everyone had to be home by seven o’clock or you’d be arrested or shot. The military out in the street, tanks, trucks, the army — everybody is out there. Only a few people came to the opening, some Iranians and Europeans. People were already afraid. We had a little bit of food, some photographs were taken. And after that, I left. Maybe a day or so after the shah.
Bidoun: Did you close the gallery?
TS: I left it to my family. I was still thinking that things would get better eventually. Later all the artwork was taken and stored in the garage of my father’s apartment.
Bidoun: So the story about the bricks being stolen from the gallery isn’t true?
TS: No, it was — all the bricks were stolen, they broke into my father’s garage and took everything, stole everything. It disappeared. Sure, it was nothing compared to the devastation other people were suffering. It was nothing compared to being taken up to the rooftops and shot or hanged in public for kissing someone, or losing your family or all your properties. And that’s not even counting the war with Iraq, another ten years of devastation.
Bidoun: It’s the stealing of the gold bricks by the revolutionaries from the gallery… even just displaying a pile of gold bricks in a gallery in the middle of a revolution. There seems to be an inescapable irony.
TS: Not really, no. This was also about taking dirt, the earth of Iran, and gilding that. There was a remarkable force about it, about using gold as a material in art, the literal impact that has, with the balancing of the light. I think his understanding was also about arriving at a place of glory. I mean, if you look at the history of ancient times, of the arrival of gold and the function it played in the first coins, for example, it was all about this idea of value, which is sort of godlike, that everybody agrees upon. Even in ornamentation, or let’s say, in the bulls or in animals.
Bidoun: But that’s such a plastic definition. It’s almost an abstract expressionist way of defining a substance. But you know better than anyone that by the time it came out, all this different stuff had come into art. Including politics. What gold is, is also, you know…
TS: Firstly, I think you have an association that is not true, which the press always said, which is that I built the collection for the shah of Iran. It wasn’t the shah of Iran. The work I was doing was for the program set in place by the empress. The shah was not at all involved in the cultural program. I think he had heard about it, of course — he attended the opening of the museum. But he was busy doing other things. So it wasn’t a collection for the shah at all. That’s the first thing. But also about the so-called revolution, I don’t consider it a revolution. It happened over one night. I went to see it, I checked it out. I saw streets with every business that had to do with the West — cinemas, music shops, computer stores — completely destroyed. Three hundred, four hundred stores, everything pulled out into the middle of the street and set on fire, all this while the military and the army is there. How is this possible? With, like, two hundred, three hundred people there? In the course of three or four hours? Impossible!
Bidoun: It looks like there are thousands of people in photographs from that time.
TS: Even if you have thousands of people, it is impossible to do that much damage. With tanks and the military on the street? Impossible, impossible, impossible, impossible. Unless it was planned.
So, unfortunately, this is the theater in which I am trying to do my little bit. And so we opened the gallery where we were glorifying the earth of Tehran, turning it into gold, and what happened? The Tehran museum says, “You’re independent, you don’t belong to the museum.” I didn’t get a penny out of the Tehran museum, not even a ham sandwich, after I helped them make close to a billion-plus profits and the cultural advantage of having the best pieces.
Bidoun: It just seemed ironic, the revolutionaries stealing the gold — and from you, a man famous for his political intervention on another work of art. It feels like in America you were on a different side of the struggle.
TS: You have to realize the passage we’d gone through. I came from a radically revolutionary bearded background. I mean I wasn’t in the SDS or the Weathermen or whatever, but I was pretty radical and involved with students who participated in the marches and the Art Workers’ Coalition. Witnessing what the AWC did, making the world aware of what the military was doing and to take a position — all the artists participated and an artistic dialogue was taking place and the work that was being made addressed that. Protesting became part of the art. But for me, now, coming to Iran, seeing that there was a need, I thought I could serve the purpose of opening the door through culture. Young Iranians could get closer to that and engage in a dialogue.
Students who hadn’t had the opportunity to participate in the kinds of protests that the French, American, and German students had in the Sixties were taking to the streets. And their so-called banner, their enemy—well, the shah was going to be their enemy. And why? I am convinced that there was a planned program that was put into place to dismantle Iran and bring down the shah, because Iran was making tremendous headway into becoming a wealthy country and America was going through a devastating recession. Cities were on fire. I remember seeing the Watts Riots, visiting my mother’s house in Los Angeles and watching on the TV that another part of the city we were in was on fire. And meanwhile we were still hearing of lynchings going on in the South, town halls taking part in lynching, people coming out into the square in their nice white suits, smoking cigars, standing around as if it was a ceremony, taking pictures with these bodies hanging from the trees. And this is the Western world that started telling the Eastern world about human rights, telling it how to behave. Jimmy Carter was a stupid, idiotic, moron peanut farmer from the Midwest with an alcoholic, beer-drinking pig of a brother, and of course nobody today really analyzes the fact that Carter was probably one of the worst presidents America has ever had, as far as foreign relations are concerned.
Bidoun: But didn’t you identify the political aspirations of at least the Iranian left with those of your peers in New York in the AWC? Or the protestors in Paris?
TS: Of course, by 1977 you could sense things were happening, the level of anger was there. But the suspicions weren’t very well founded. And the people who had suspicions — they were not of the kind that you would have any respect for, I’m sorry to say. The so-called revolutionaries were not the kind of people who had participated in New York or Paris. But the media in America made them into that. The information and the misinformation and the pictures that were broadcast to the world about the palaces and the jewels and all the wealth and riches were contrary to reality. The picture that was painted of the shah as this horrible, corrupt person, killing people and torturing people, mischievous, secretive. And all of a sudden this godlike guy comes along. When I came back to the States, I found my colleagues, buddies like Richard Serra, people I worked with, were glorifying Khomeini. The American media invented Khomeini, they are the ones who helped create the Shiites, they helped create Al Qaeda, they created it and let it become out of control, and now it is completely out of control. It’s like playing with a bee’s nest, in a way, by purposely destroying it. What did the resulting fractured animosity and hatred do to that country or those cultures? It sent them back to pre-medieval ages.
Years and years and years ago, I remember always being frustrated at the uneducated aspect of Iranian culture that I come from. Back in ’76, ’77, when I took visiting American artists out to see the mosques and all that, you realize what a miserable pit that it is. You have all these people stinking with the worst stinking feet, I’m sorry to say. And you can always say that it’s because they’re poor, but it wasn’t about being poor. And here the paradox was between the stinking to high heaven and the great grandeur of the mosque. But the mosque had been built generations earlier by extremely competent craftsmen. When the shah’s father came into power, he actually — with tremendous cruelty — he had whitewashed, just taken out all the riffraff with incredible strength. I remember driving around Iran, there were certain places that you would go through these desert-like hills, and there were these pillars that were said to be people turned into pillars of salt — much like the ancient biblical story, I suppose. But he had been the one who had modernized the country, the shah’s father. So, when you went to a mosque, you saw this wonderful replica of what was left of Islamic architecture, and then here are all these people with their stinking, really primitive behavior. Not poor—not at all like the people in even the poorest villages. I admired those people because they were clean. They have cultural traits that are sophisticated, as poor as they are. Their clothes might have hundreds of stitches, but there is beauty, there is glory, they are glorious people. But this was unimaginable, nothing came out of it — the voice of the mullahs praying or talking came out of cheap loudspeakers. Even that, based on Western invention. These people have contributed absolutely nothing, zero, in the last how many centuries? And now they want to jump into nuclear war. You know, the mystical image of Khomeini as the people’s hero, the radicals and the left-wing media glorifying him, the idiotic young students, they all bought into this stupid so-called revolution, and their revolution became something else. I don’t consider it a revolution.
Bidoun: So you don’t see it relating to your Guernica action?
TS: No, no.
Bidoun: Let’s talk about Guernica, then. Because we’ve always understood what you did as very much a political act. And we still want to know — you know, what was going through your head at the time? Were you thinking about the historical legacy of what was happening even as you were doing it?
TS: Basically, a thought came to me at a critical point of my development. I was working with words, phrases, speech — it was what we were dealing with at the time. And I thought, well, where else could the phrase go? A phrase taken out of context, with no subject, no I. We were all into the business of dislocation back then. Displacement. Smithson, for example. Taking a thing from one place and putting it in another was a concern of Lawrence Weiner, as well. So a thought occurred that in this process a phrase could literally slide off the page and then travel onto the wall. And then another thought occurred, which was that if a phrase could slide off the page and travel onto the wall, what would happen if it met a painting? What if it then went across the painting? I thought, wow — a whole new thing would occur then.
Bidoun: It almost sounds as if it occurred to you as a formal, conceptual act before it became a specific, political act.
TS: Oh, yes.
Bidoun: So it wasn’t that the MoMA was having a particular show and you were upset about the Vietnam War?
TS: Oh, no. But then the next thought was that if a phrase were to travel across a work of art, what work should it be? I didn’t want to go all the way to ancient history, it was too big. But even limiting yourself to the twentieth century, you still had to think about what painting, what artwork, would be the most desirable or the most implicitly significant. I thought about Jackson Pollack, Barnett Newman. I’d always considered Picasso as like a grandfather or a father. And Guernica… Contrary to what a lot of people seem to think, I know the painting extremely well. At my very first art school, I had made sculptures of parts of it, the horse’s scream, the cockerel. There was the expressive nature of it and the originality of its forms. It took into account the scale of cinema — the black and white of it had a lot to do with cinema, a large-scale cinematic reckoning of the horror of war — but also the way it was constructed, the various elements, the buildings, the window, the animals, the baby on the floor. It’s beyond magnificent, there’s no parallel. Even just as a painted surface, it’s very alive, very radical and super fresh. To me it was the most important painting of the century.
Anyway, I was tormented by the idea. It would break all kinds of taboos, of course. But I struggled with the idea for six months, grappling with the consequences — would it be sensible, would it damage the painting, would it be considered a criminal act? I mean, it’s unknowable. But it dawned on me that the singular family that I’d been drawn to since I was nine or ten — my family, really — was the art world. So my greatest fear was that I would literally be hated by everyone, cast out, so to speak, from the family of art. Which would be like going off a cliff for me. And then most likely deported — I didn’t have an American passport — very likely imprisoned. But you’re dealing with the unknown. I was so focused on this business of dislocation, of taking a word out of one context and applying it somewhere else. And you don’t know what could trigger in somebody’s mind. I could be shot — I thought of that being a real possibility, having lived through the Sixties and all these assassinations. And the personal part of it — what would my father say? But the idea wouldn’t go away.
I found myself thinking a lot about Dada. That was one of the first instances where art stepped into the real world, you know? There was Duchamp and the Mona Lisa, of course, but there was also Arthur Cravan, probably the most far out of the Dadaists — big, tall fellow. He challenged Jack Johnson, the heavyweight boxing champion of the world, probably the strongest man of the twentieth century, to a fight. He arranged a public match, went into the ring —
Bidoun: That’s amazing! Like Bob Dylan challenging Cassius Clay.
TS: And that realness was very important — he could have got killed.
So it was… it wasn’t going to be a sort of hit-and-run situation. I didn’t want to go at night, or when nobody’s looking, or run away and blame it on somebody else. I had to finger myself, even. Because the other thing was that I wanted the Guernica to be on the front page. It had to be world news. Of course, it had been world news, it had itself addressed a world news event. It had addressed the bombing of Guernica, yes, but it also addressed the war we were in right then, the war we’re in now. Any contemporary war. And at that moment, in 1974, the cataclysmic disaster that was still going on, the war culminating more or less in the chaos of impeachment, people in top government brought down, headlines from one side to the other — at a time like that, it was crazy to me that a painting like the Guernica was seen, if at all, through a haze of ignorance and smoke, relegated to a place of absolute insignificance. The force, the power, the real significance that art could have, that Picasso had, that that painting had, had been shoved aside somehow, had been… what’s the word?
TS: Exactly, gagged. And I felt that that was the real crime, that the Guernica had a voice, it had something to say — that art had to be the thing that wrecks the world. And so all of the things I had been involved in with the AWC, all the marches, were about the role and function of art in society. And I thought that if I could bring it back onto the front page, maybe it would have a tremendous effect. In the context of this world in crisis, where there was assassination after assassination and bombing after bombing, the Guernica might trigger an awakening…
There is an idea in Zen — “sudden awakening,” they call it — where at a critical moment of his journey, a monk would go to the room where all the Buddhas were and actually strike the Buddha physically. Not out of hatred, but as a kind of ultimate interaction with it. And I imagined my action leading to a kind of emanating sound, a voice. And, you know, I was also thinking about American movies of the Thirties and Forties, when the Guernica was made, black-and-white movies. Someone would hold up a newspaper and suddenly you have a closeup of it that says, “READ ALL ABOUT IT.” And so, you know, the idea of this phrase on the painting becoming a headline, KILL LIES ALL — which could be read either way, “lies all” or “lies kill” — and the Guernica, back on the front page.
Bidoun: So there was a definite political idea.
TS: Where we had arrived after the Sixties — you cannot imagine what I am talking about, because you weren’t there. Imagine you are eighteen, nineteen, twenty, and all this new technology is developing. Color television in your home. And what is the first thing you see in color? The napalm bomb. Napalm was remarkable, I mean devastating — these bombs being dropped over these villages and these palm trees, the most exotic greenery, and these yellow flames. Imagine seeing that night and day, night and day.
The power of the war industry had a dire impact on the independent life of the artist, on the independent language and freedom of their vista, what they’re looking at, at their sense of play, and it castrated us to the point of sort of a revulsion. And everybody involved in it was so criminal. It had to be ripped apart, so that the fabric of this misrepresentation, this lie, had to come apart.
Anyway, at a certain point, a rendezvous was made. I realized that I had to go through with it — I couldn’t do anything else.
So I prepared myself. I had my passport, my traveler’s checks. I was ready to be banished or expelled or jailed. I even called UPI and the wire services so that they would become aware of it as it was being done. And then I did it. I was all dressed and clean, very calm, very clear. It was very pure. And as I approached it, I was in probably the clearest and calmest place I’ve ever been. That’s what was going through my mind.
Bidoun: And then the next thing you did was Moogambo, an artist’s book that you published with Printed Matter in 1976. It’s such a strange book, photographs and a story. It has the air of a French costume drama or a 1940s Hollywood film — many of the images would not look out of place on the cover of a glam rock album, actually. It was your last major work as an artist, before you became a gallerist. How did that happen?
TS: Well, at this point I started to get some attention as an artist. I was very involved in conceptualism, making short conceptual texts and little performances. I showed in Belgium, Florence, Milan. Of course, in those days, you would have three or four shows a year, and you would make at most a couple thousand dollars from a show, if you sold something. So we were living on $15,000 a year. It was pretty extreme. And then as I started doing shows, you know, I would sit in a hotel room and wait in my room to perform a line or two of text at whatever gallery. You wait one day, you go back, you wait, you go back, you wait.
It was so stagnant. We were all doing our things, but the results… as interesting as it was, it was pretty miserable. Most of those concerns ended up miserable. Look at someone like Che Guevara, this great-looking guy, very enigmatic guy, who gets involved in the idea of revolution. And when the revolution he fought for in Cuba isn’t working, he leaves to find something even more idealistic. Which even he knows is a lost cause. And then the image of his body, riddled with bullets and gaunt — as beautiful and saintly as he was, he was such a morbid waste. Maybe one hopes that this is an example, that it will provoke something, maybe it’ll change things a little bit. But then, who controls the way it gets documented? The stories that are translated and represented and misrepresented make up a totally different reality than the one that actually happened.
Bidoun: How did you break out?
TS: Shortly after the Guernica, I had moved to the East Village, which was a desolate, miserable place, all burnt out and broken down. At night there were fires and drugs and all sorts of gangs, you were barely able to walk from one street to another. Your body language and how you maneuvered yourself was really a matter of survival. All that stuff from the underground comics of that time, S. Clay Wilson — all the rough guys with machetes and tattoos, this tribal world out of control — all that reflected a real neighborhood experience that came alive at night. Cops hardly ever visited there. I mean, this was way before crack, but it was pretty frightening. It was very cheap and very poor.
And then one day I ran into Jack Smith on the street. He was a real underground hero, a radical outsider. More far out than anybody. Jack was a very tall guy with a hook nose — he had been a very good-looking guy, there are pictures of him from the early Sixties, but then everything went crazy, he had drifted somewhere. Jack was the one who had really influenced Andy Warhol to go into movies — Andy said that in his diaries. There was talk that Fellini had seen Jack’s film, Flaming Creatures, and that the whole Fellini world was somewhat influenced by it. Jack represented this whole subversive experimental beat druggie otherworld, very different from the art world that I had been a part of. I had seen Flaming Creatures in 1965 when I visited New York, and then after I moved here in the late Sixties, once in a blue moon, there’d be a play. I went with Richard Serra a few times. There would be soft or sometimes scratchy music from some late Forties Hollywood romance, like you’re in Hawaii or Egypt or some exotic place. Very tropical, Oriental. Very hypnotic. You’d start to notice the set — falling apart, a little ripe, with many references to childlike dreaming, but all funky, fragmented. And little by little this mood would start to happen, there’d be incense, blue light, and then you might see a shadow of some old person, like an old woman with a huge nose, with a vacuum cleaner, and then she would vacuum the carpet, very slowly, for half an hour. And that would be the play.
Bidoun: So Jack Smith marked a moment…
TS: Jack Smith represented something totally outside of the moment. His performance was sort of this nonexistent fragment, absolutely outside of anything normal.
So Jack Smith saw me in the street one day, and he said, “Oh yeah, that’s right, you’re the guy.” He was looking up at the sky, far away, and he said, “Hmm, yes, I always considered that the most revolutionary thing, the most responsible thing, any of us have ever done.” He was talking about the Guernica.
And I thought, Wow, that was really something, coming from him. Jack was never impressed by anybody, he would hardly even look at people. He only ever appreciated the most radical art. And he insisted I go with him to his place. It turned out that we lived half a block from each other. I was on 2nd Street between Avenue B and A, he was on 1st between B and C. He lived in this absolutely dilapidated building — you went up these stairs, and you could barely open the door. The place was collapsed decay, mildew and mess, the heater… Forget about any sense of order. It was chaos and cockroaches everywhere, you could barely walk. You knew the insanity was so dense that once you were in it, you were really in it very deep. And yet within that he would find his interpretation, his dream.
Bidoun: How did you fit into this? It doesn’t really seem like your scene, exactly.
TS: I think for Jack, I came from the place he was dreaming about, the place Hollywood had dreamed about at its origins. I came from the Sinbad the Sailor place. And, you know, smoking a little hash and putting his music on… . He asked me to work with him. At that point, he was making slideshows. So I started taking pictures for him. We would go on these excursions, and he would pose like Sabu from the Thief of Baghdad, enacting the Hollywood air, and it was like any corner could be a set. He was so far out. He would be all dressed up with makeup and long nails and a goatee beard, carrying around all this trash and garbage so he could make some sort of costume with it. So we would go around and find a dilapidated corner or a ruined building and something would strike him. And he had these glasses, big reading glasses he had that he wanted to use for a shoot, and I put them on the floor and crushed them, and when I saw it got his attention I took them and got some Scotch tape and taped the broken parts together. And then I got a lighter and I lit the whole thing on fire with a candle so that it was half smoke and half glued and half burnt, and he saw it and he said, “Genius.”
So this went on for a few months. I thought the photographs were really great, and Jack dug them, too, but the other thing was that the interaction was very strong. I was always trying to talk a little sense into him, trying to get him out to do things. And he got this big break, an invitation to go to Rome. He had this thing about a crazy penguin, taking a penguin — oh, I can’t remember all the details. It was the star of his…
Bidoun: Was it a person?
TS: No, it was a penguin. A statue, all dolled up, crazy things done to it. So one day I get this phone call saying that he was sending me a ticket to be a major part of this thing. So, sure enough, since I was in Milan anyway doing a show, I flew to Rome. And I went to where Jack was staying, which was the gallery where his thing was taking place. You could sleep in the gallery — it was very beyond revolution, beyond all that stuff. There was a mattress, I could stay there. So then we spent the whole day in this big, huge, windowless cavern of a place, him making bits and pieces of costumes. So come evening time, a lot of people leave the place, and I said to Jack, “I’m hungry, you want to go and eat something, Jack?” And this guy we were with, this good-looking black fellow, said, “Yeah, let’s go eat something or go see a movie or something.” So I said, “Okay, Jack, let’s go, let’s get outta here and get some air and maybe eat something.” And he says, “Oh, eh…” So I went with the guy, and when I come back it was pouring with rain. It was after ten o’clock and sort of dark, and I was getting really wet — I had a leather jacket, I remember — and I was knocking on this old wooden door in an old part of Rome. And after a while the door opened a little crack and there was this hook nose, rather like the witch out of A Thousand and One Nights. I said, “Jack, it’s raining.” And a hand came out with my beat-up brown leather suitcase, just a hand. And then he put it down and closed the door. “Jack,” and there’s no response. “What are you doing? I have nowhere to go!” Nothing. I didn’t know what to do. I was wandering around in the rain getting soaked. The only thing I could think to do is go to the train station. I took an eleven-thirty train to Milan. So all the way, I’m devastated. I’m broken, shocked, can’t figure out what the fuck it was about. No response, of course he has no phone to call, there’s no means of communication.
So I’m back in Milan, where I have a show to do, anyway. But to do the show I have to wait, I have to sit around waiting, in that agitated state I was in. And Italian life is such that by noon, twelve-thirty, everything shuts down. So I remember looking through these shutters, the sunny day, midday at lunchtime. Being an outsider, being outside, a foreigner, no purpose, no program, looking out the shutters of the hotel room. Looking at the street, bright. And yet nothing moves, the shutters are all closed. Nothing can happen. You can’t do anything. Boring. Dead. Another half-hour. The seconds, hours, and months start ticking away, nothing to do. And at five o’clock everything starts again, you go back to the gallery, read a few words. And come back the next day.
Bidoun: Wait, did you ever find out what happened with Jack?
TS: Many years later I ran into him somewhere, and I asked him why he had shut the door in my face that night and left me in the rain. And Jack was really out of it and kind of looked up in this childlike, dreamy way and said, “You took my chocolate.” I thought he was really out of it, and I didn’t ask him what he meant — but years later I realized that he meant that boy I went to dinner with.
TS: So anyway, there I was staring out of the shades. And I suddenly felt open to anything. I had reread A Thousand and One Nights back then, and it had a revelatory impact on me, having done all my reading of Sartre and having gone back and forth to Iran. The unknown takes you somewhere else, and that takes you somewhere else, one step after the other. So you’re witnessing at the same time you’re participating.
So little by little, being in Italy, I started thinking about Fellini and the magic that cinema had had, La Dolce Vita, the energy, the creativity involved. And then this fucking art world, the draining sense that you have to wait, you have to do a fucking word that’s on a wall, you have to wait, smoke, like, fifty thousand cigarettes, wait, have three beers with boring, unimaginative people, over and over again. It becomes so monotonous, so fucking dreary, everybody is so square and drab, and all the work was like, you glue a few things down on a piece of paper. Or you play with a video camera and you make the most monotonous things imaginable, fucking boring as shit. And I couldn’t stand it anymore. What had started with pop art and miniskirts and sex and color had ended up with beards and long hair and revolution. And at the end of it all, this is where we’re going? I said, “Fuck that.”
The only places to go to in Milan were the coffee shops and the ice cream stores. There’s nowhere to go. So the only thing there was the newsstand. You go to the newsstand and you see what magazines there are. There was a lot of black market stuff happening in a very naive way. They had things called fumetti, little comic books, in Italian. It was all erotic stuff… people fucking and sucking each other. Businesspeople would buy those. But they also had old comic books. Except they weren’t old. I suddenly found comic books from my youth — the original Tarzan comic books, drawn by Burne Hogarth. And suddenly all the longing and the dreams and the wonderful fantasies I had as a kid, seeing my first comic books—cowboy comics, Batman, horror comics, with their incredible drawings — suddenly all these years later, I found the intricacies of the beauty. There! They’re right there! Newly printed, a mad stack of them. It opened up a whole world for me. I realized then you could actually re-track back.
Bidoun: The comics.
TS: It was like a goldmine. I wish I’d taken those comics and made objects out of them, paintings out of them. It was that kind of enormous discovery, the same kind of radical excitement that I found in Warhol when I first saw the paintings, and I loved them, worshipped them, and they touched me so much. The same way as with Lichtenstein’s work, the brushstrokes. But these comics were at the origins of that. And finding them again — especially because they were new. It wasn’t like finding them in a secondhand store — it was a kiosk, a newsstand. Nobody understood the value, but they were putting it to use.
Bidoun: And all of this came together in Moogambo?
TS: Yes. I mean, I had come there to work with Jack, but he had literally left me out in the rain. And I had my Thousand and One Nights and my Tarzan comics, and I just started to do things with sets and with random people I found. I had an intense energy, nothing mattered except making it happen. There was a Fiorucci store that was closed for renovation, and they had hundreds of tropical plants inside, and I knew I needed them for a photo. So I went in the store and I started pleading with them that they had to let me borrow their plants — I told them that I would give them back and that they were beautiful and I had to have them, and somehow eventually they agreed because they knew I wouldn’t leave otherwise.
Another time there was this miserable march going on, these Italian communists, bearded kids in fatigues like we had worn in New York ten years earlier, marching for some reason or other, chanting. We set up a shot right in the middle of the protest. The cast all had the most outrageous brilliant clothes and colors and psychedelic paisley prints and crazy hair — I did all the makeup myself — and the police came in with jeeps and automatic guns and they told us we were under arrest. And we completely, totally ignored them. We didn’t say a word, and they just stood there with their guns, watching, and I kept doing the makeup and setting up the shot. I was working so intensely. Eventually they just left. But you know, there we were, in the middle of these gray, dreary protesters, and everyone thought we were the disruption. I knew we were way, way ahead of these people.
In 1973, I was ten years old, my best friend was Ashish Deshpande, and our favorite activity was dreaming. In our favorite dream, we would acquire a large airplane and fly away in it. We researched our dream-scripts in the pages of Hamlyn’s Pocket Guide to Aircraft. For some inexplicable reason, we selected the Fairey Gannet, a spectacularly dowdy machine, as our transport of choice.
It was an odd plane, with two counter-rotating propellers on its nose. And it is odd, now, to remember such nuggets of childhood memory so clearly. But what seems really odd is that we actually used to do this, settle down to spend an afternoon dreaming.
Ashish and I shared another daydream, which later became a wager: that our fathers would become Brain Drains. We wanted them to get jobs in the West and take us away from Delhi, from India, forever. I still have the sketchbook on the back of which we both signed the deal: “If you go first, I pay Rs 100.”
Neither of us had a hundred rupees. But I never stood a chance. Ashish’s father, Sharad Uncle, was an underpaid research scientist who did unspeakable things to cats at the Patel Chest Institute. But he had prospects. Whereas my father had already flown away — to India. He was a peculiar German, who had come to study at the Delhi School of Economics and stayed on to earn a comfortable living in the Press Department of the West German Embassy, fighting Communism (or at least, the Press Department of the East German Embassy). What really killed me was that, before I was born, he had worked for Lufthansa in New York City. So why in the third world were we stuck in Delhi? Sharad Uncle and Baba were like counter-rotating propellers. I still owe Ashish a hundred bucks.
After Sharad Uncle got a job at Johns Hopkins, I didn’t see Ashish again for ten years. Then, in my twenties, on my own way to an American university, I went to spend a weekend in Baltimore with the Deshpandes. Ashish and I chatted away, even after the lights were out and we were in our beds, catching up with the slight reserve that comes from knowing too little and too much about one another — until we started talking about girls. And Ashish shouted, “I love sex!” with such enthusiasm that we both dissolved in laughter. It was good to have something new in common.
Maybe we dreamed so much back then because we didn’t have TVs. When my cable connection died earlier this year, I decided I couldn’t be bothered to replace it. Lately, I’ve been spending a lot more time in my head. Not dreaming so much as remembering. I realize that many of my childhood memories are preserved in the sharp vinegar of embarrassment.
I’m still embarrassed. I’m embarrassed at how viscerally I craved the provisions of the first world. I knew this world existed because in 1969, we had gone to visit my grandparents in Germany and my aunt in America. I can still remember the shock of seeing a car on display in the concourse of Frankfurt airport. A whole car! In a building! It was just a lottery prize.
We came back with fat catalogues from German department stores — Kaufhof, Quelle, and Karstadt — and I spent many hours poring over those encyclopedias of the unattainable. That same year I was sent to the British School in Delhi, where many of my classmates were the children of diplomats. They came and went in a convoy of exotic automobiles: Mercs and Toyotas, Peugeots and Holdens, Fords and Vauxhalls. And they smelled different. They were perfumed with wealth. These kids washed with foreign soaps, used imported detergents on their imported clothes, wiped their bums on Andrex toilet tissue. They ate Danish ham and Tiptree’s jam. They wore braces gummy with Marmite, Nutella, and Kraft cheese.
At home, we had a small larder, kept under lock and key, which contained an assortment of these goods and an indescribably luxurious aroma of its own. But my father was a local employee at the embassy, and our quotidian consumer goods were Indian, the classic products of those days of import substitution industrialization. They had their own hierarchy. Soap, for example, ran from the yellow ochre sticks purchased by the inch for the kitchen sink, to the dull-red Lifebuoy, which smelled of servants, to the indigenous opulence of Moti sandalwood soap. But mostly we used sickly green bricks of Hamam and Cinthol. Even our toothpaste was green — Binaca Green.
In the mid-Seventies, I went to see a film at Archana Cinema and came away feeling utterly repulsed. It was Soylent Green with Charlton Heston, set in a Malthusian post-consumerist dystopia where even jam has become a luxury item. The masses subsist on green biscuits — the Soylent Green of the title — which the Soylent Corporation maintains are made of kelp and plankton. Heston’s character, a detective, finds himself investigating the “euthanasia centers” where the poor and the elderly go to die. At the end of the film, he screams aloud his harrowing discovery: “Soylent Green is people!” What made me sick was that it looked suspiciously like Hamam.
It’s true, we are what we eat. Import substitution is people too. I’m one of them.
I remember things past. Things like biscuits (Britannia Nice and Bourbon), soap and detergent (Tinopal, Tinopal, Tinopal!), and cars (the Standard Gazelle — based on the rakish Triumph Herald but indigenized to the point that it became dowdier than a Fairey Gannet). And telephones (trunk calls and lightning calls, and our first telephone connection — 40537, a number I will never forget). The elastic belts from my sister’s Carefree sanitary napkins, which I used as slingshots. The ersatz colas: Pepino, Double Seven, and Campa. RimZim and Gold Spot (“Jee bharke jiyo, Gold Spot piyo”). Canvas jeans from Jeans Junction. Nativist burgers (spicy patties, fried buns, and thick slices of onion). The buxom, bouffanted plaster mannequins in their silk saris at Handloom House. The comic books: the Phantom.
More than anything else, I remember the ritual of listening to the radio with Baba. The sense of urgency at tuning in to the BBC World Service in the evenings, the trilling pipes of “Lily Bolero” followed by tantalizing time pips — and then the news, which washed in like cargo on the surging crests of short wave, our tenuous link to the distant West.
But the program that really defines this era for me was the weird and poetic News Read at Slow Speed on All India Radio. This was an afternoon service — almost a liturgy — that we would often catch at the table, when Baba came home for lunch and a siesta. The grey Grundig would buzz and hum with importance as it pronounced: “This… is… All… India… Radio Bzzzz The… News Hmmm Read… at… Slow… Speed Bzzzz by… Surojit… Sen.” The portentous pauses were intended to help provincial correspondents take notes. But the news was never news. We would hear instead that the procurement target of twenty million quintals of rice from the kharif crop had been met. Or that the Romanian minister for culture and cooperation had arrived on a state visit. And yet it crackled with significance, like it was intended for news of an assassination. Which did come, eventually.
Usually my father would give me a sideways glance at the end of the news, and a complicit smile would wrinkle the thin crescent etched on his cheek. Jawaharlal Nehru had the same crease. It is a line I hope I’m beginning to acquire, too. It was a smile that said: this is silly, but it’s not so bad, this life lived at slow speed.
Baba was fiercely proud of his degree from the Delhi School of Economics. As a child, I struggled to comprehend how he could be so dismissive of the lecture halls of Hamburg University, which he had abandoned for this new Valhalla, peopled by Indians with names like Jagdish Bhagwati, Amartya Sen, and Manmohan Singh. His particular favorite was Professor K. N. Raj. In later years, he made regular pilgrimages to visit his old tutor. This was troubling. Baba was a gentle but committed cold warrior. He was ten when World War II ended in his country’s liberation, and like many of his generation, he was not just pro-America, he was madly in love with it. With jazz and movies and moonrockets and the Kennedys. Yet as far as I could tell, the old professor was a Communist.
It’s still a puzzle. I know now, as my father must have known then, that Surojit Sen was only speaking his lines. It was K. N. Raj who wrote the script of the News Read at Slow Speed. He was the man who first advised Nehru to “hasten slowly.” I know that K. N. Raj was at least half in love with the Soviet Union. And I know he was an honorable man.
I fantasized that my father was a spy for one side or another. When we heard on the news that the minister for railways had been mortally wounded by a mysterious bomb, I knew something was up. That was in January 1975. Five months later, I followed my father, now a foreign correspondent for German newspapers, to attend a rally at the roundabout outside the prime minister’s bungalow. He wanted me to translate. “Conspiracy,” she said. And, “Foreign hand.”
I remember the eighteen months of Indira Gandhi’s Emergency as a time of danger and excitement. There was the cult of personality that surrounded Indira and her thuggish heir apparent, Sanjay, the shuttered newspapers, the locked-up parliamentarians. At last the secret was out: The government was bad, everyone good was underground or in jail, and Baba was a spy, or something similar, smuggling reports out through strangers at the airport and writing under the code name Jens Nielssen.
My daydreams became increasingly complex. Without Ashish, they were more solipsistic, even a little sinister. There were only two of them. In the sweeter one, I found myself alone in the world with Helen, a Dutch classmate I had fancied for years. We traveled around the desolate, abandoned country for a while, taking what we wanted from shops and diplomats’ houses. Then we flew out of Palam Airport in a 707 to live off the supermarkets of the West.
In the other, more disturbing dream, I worked out that everything in the world — or rather worlds, first, second, and third — was a fiction, an elaborate psycho-theatrical experiment with me as its subject. Nothing was as it seemed. It was Surojit Sen who finally broke the news to me. He took his time.
That daymare came back to me years later, watching The Truman Show and The Matrix. But by that time India was a very different country. I had returned from my American college in 1990, a failed Brain Drain, having taken four years to complete a one-year MA. Just before I left New York, I watched the world change on TV, as the Berlin Wall fell and the Iron Curtain parted. At the same time, a friend of mine, a successful Brain Drain who works as an oceanographer in Kiel, was on a polar voyage. He returned with tales of partying with colleagues at Dakshin Gangotri, India’s Antarctic station. Afterward they ferried glum scientists from the East German outpost back to a country that no longer existed.
In India it seemed that our homespun khadi curtains were fluttering. My worried parents pushed me into a job in what was then Bombay — at a venerable magazine that survived, sleepily, on handouts from the equally venerable Tata Corporation. I was hectored by a lovely old Parsi bird called Lulu Mehta who threw the colonial canon of copyediting (“Fowler, Partridge, and Quiller-Couch!”) at me every chance she got. One afternoon the entire office assembled in the garret of the Army and Navy Building to listen dutifully to a tape-recorded address, “On Excellence,” from the chairman himself, JRD Tata. Then we applauded.
But Bombay was too glamorous and energetic for me. There was an unsettling entrepreneurial buzz about it, and a careerist chatter that made me nervous. Longing for the old torpor of Delhi, I quit my job and came home. I struggled as a freelancer quite happily until one day it was 1993, I was married, my father was about to retire, and the quiet D-School professor Manmohan Singh was India’s finance minister. None of this troubled me, actually, but Baba seemed to know something I didn’t. He nagged and nagged and pushed me into another job, a proper job, at a newsmagazine.
At thirty, my long afternoon of underdevelopment was over. I had a career. A terminal condition, it seems. Just before I quit the newsmagazine to move on and double my salary, I had my first presentiment that the country was changing again. I set out to write a satirical essay on the dinosaurs of bureaucracy that had survived Manmohan Singh’s first wave of economic liberalization. I was quite pleased with the title — “Bureaucratic Park” — though it never saw the light of day. But the real thrill was finding myself back on very familiar turf. Grimy corridors, supplicant citizens, and the “concerned officer” enthroned on his swivel chair. I loved the scenery — the towel on the backrest, the psychedelic paperweights… the papers beneath them.
There was the Commission for Scientific and Technical Terminology, an Orwellian outfit that produced a Comprehensive Glossary of Administrative Terms in English and the vernacular. “Hindi is very poor in terms,” a commissioner told me. Another office nurtured the remains of Indira Gandhi’s 20-Point Program from the Emergency days. “We look after points 1, 5, 8, 11, 14, 15, and 16,” a man told me. “The other thirteen have been dropped.” My favorite was the Office of Stationery. “Please apply in writing. In triplicate,” they told me. I went to visit them instead, and found the assembled staff standing hushed and yes, stationary, at their desks. It was a moment of silence for a fallen colleague, a bureaucratic wake.
Today Manmohan Singh is our prime minister, and my home is cluttered with pre-liberalization memorabilia. I have two black rotary-dial phones with trilling electromechanical bells and a bakelite radio that buzzes and hums. I have assorted Nehruviana, including a Publications Division comic on Nehru and the new temples of India, and another book called Rhymes on Nehru. I have World’s Wisest Wizard: Sanjay Gandhi. I have a bust and three statues of Ambedkar. (If I could find one of Indiraji, I’d buy it in an instant.) One lucky day, I found a copy of Following Lenin’s Course, The Speeches and Articles of LI Brezhnev. The speeches are peppered with four kinds of applause: “applause,” “prolonged applause,” “stormy applause,” and “stormy prolonged applause.” In his speech to the Eighth Congress of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany in June 1971, the floodgates burst: “‘Stormy, prolonged applause.’ All rise. The Congress delegates and guests remain standing till the end of the speech… ‘Friendship!’ ‘Long live the CPSU!’ ‘Hurrah!’”
Outside my house, a consumer revolution is turning my country upside down. The revolution is televised. In fact, to a large extent, it is television. But I don’t watch TV anymore. Sometimes I watch DVDs. Just days ago, I saw Good Bye Lenin!, which belongs to a genre the Germans call “Ostalgie.” (Germans are wittier than you think.) It follows a young East German man who tries to shield his dying mother from the reality of reunification by constructing an elaborate televisual Truman Show around her. But it’s really about respecting the past you share with the ones you love. I never cry at movies, but this one nearly got me. It ends with this monologue from the hero, Daniel Brühl:
Das Land das meine Mutter verließ, war ein Land an das sie geglaubt hatte… Ein Land das es in Wirklichkeit nie so gegeben hat. Ein Land das in meiner Erinnerung immer mit meiner Mutter verbunden sein wird.
The country that my mother left was a land that she believed in… . A country that was never quite what it seemed. A country that in my memory will always be bound to my mother.
My mother, God bless her, is still with me. It’s my father he’s talking about.
I’ve lost some of my childhood enthusiasm for air travel, but these days it seems I go to the airport every other month. To pick up my wife, or a relative, or a friend. And nowadays it’s not the cargo I look forward to so much as the people. Maybe one day I’ll meet Ashish here. Standing in the crowd behind the fence in the international arrivals lounge, we all stare expectantly down the long passage toward the doors of the baggage claim hall. There’s a TV monitor where we can see the apparition of long-lost loved ones materialize for an instant on an escalator. They pass like newly molded foreign goods into the hands of customs and immigration.
But I keep my eyes on the doorway where they emerge, stamped and certified. They walk slowly into focus, looking more and more familiar, until they find the face they’re looking for and we’re strangers once again. More than once I’ve caught my breath at the sight of Baba walking toward me. But he never arrives. It’s just a dream.